Social media platform Twitter has slapped Hong Kong’s government-backed broadcaster with a “state-affiliated media” label.

rthk state media
RTHK’s “state-affiliated media” label, as of Monday, April 17, 2023. Photo: Twitter screenshot.

The tech platform – owned by billionaire Elon Musk – describes state-affiliated outlets as those where “the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.”

Twitter previously limited the reach and impact of state media accounts, such as those from China and Russia. However, US media have reported that the rules were recently relaxed.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED Conference, via Flickr.

While RTHK describes itself as a public broadcaster, last November its new chief, Eddie Cheung, said that the outlet should cooperate seamlessly with the authorities. Cheung, who had no previous media experience, took over as director of broadcasting last October.

Editorial overhaul

The broadcaster underwent a major revamp following the 2019 extradition bill protests and unrest. The government ordered a review of its administration following pressure from the pro-Beijing camp, which alleged it was biased against the authorities.

Several programmes, including the city’s oldest satirical show Headliner and English-language current affairs programme The Pulse, were taken off air, as veteran hosts disappeared from the airwaves. Journalist Nabela Qoser – known for her tough questioning of officials – was among those whose employment was axed, whilst two radio show hosts were fired.

RTHK deleted older content from its website, disabled “reply” comments on its Twitter account, and refused to accept awards won by a documentary about the 2019 Yuen Long mob attacks. A producer of the documentary, Bao Choy, was convicted of making false statements to obtain vehicle licence records for the programme, and fined HK$6,000.

In recent years, it also launched a chat show hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, issued directives to staff to use Beijing-approved wording, and announced a partnership with Chinese state media outlet CCTV amid an exodus of senior editorial staff.

RTHK Radio Television Hong Kong Office
File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP

Under new editorial guidelines published in 2021, RTHK told its staff to avoid contact with foreign governments or political organisations, and pledged to prevent acts that endanger national security.

Last year, a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that fewer people trusted RTHK compared to a year before.

HKFP has reached out to RTHK for comment.

Labelling rows

Twitter recently came under fire for inaccurately labelling US public broadcaster NPR as “state-affiliated media.” It quit the platform in response.

Meanwhile, the UK’s BBC – a public broadcaster funded through a licence fee – was inaccurately marked as “government funded.” Only its international arm – which is behind the World Service – is a direct recipient of government funds.

The label was later switched to “publicly funded media.”

Andrew Leung media
File Photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

There remains concern over press freedom in Hong Kong under the Beijing-imposed national security law as the authorities vow to roll out a “fake news” law. The city’s press group has warned that press freedoms are “in tatters” after a crackdown on the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper.

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Tom founded Hong Kong Free Press in 2015 and is the editor-in-chief. In addition to editing, he is responsible for managing the newsroom and company - including fundraising, recruitment and overseeing HKFP's web presence and ethical guidelines.

He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He previously led an NGO advocating for domestic worker rights, and has contributed to the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al-Jazeera and others.