The targeting of Radio Television Hong Kong, the only independent, publicly funded broadcaster on Chinese soil, comes amid broader pressure on media freedoms in the Asian financial center, where authorities have floated the idea of fake news laws and have begun to block access to a small number of websites.
Last week, RTHK pulled programming from the BBC, echoing a move by Beijing, which took the broadcaster off the air following a critical report about human rights abuses against China’s Uighur minority. RTHK’s director of broadcasting, Leung Ka-wing, explained he was forced to follow Beijing’s lead, as “Hong Kong is part of China” and his media outlet is part of the government.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution enshrines press freedom, along with the territory’s wider autonomy until 2047, except in defense and foreign affairs. But those guarantees have come under strain, especially since June when China imposed a security law that curtailed freedom of expression. Jimmy Lai, a publisher critical of the ruling Communist Party, is in jail awaiting charges under the security law and other matters.
A government review of RTHK, released Friday, highlighted editorial “deficiencies” and a lack of “transparency and objectivity” in handling editorial complaints, among other criticisms. Leung, the 68-year-old director, will step down, the government said, and will be replaced by Patrick Li, the deputy secretary for home affairs. Li, a career civil servant, has no media experience.
The broadcaster must strengthen “editorial training to ensure all its staff and program production personnel have a full and comprehensive understanding of its public purposes and mission as a public service broadcaster,” said Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development.
While he said the broadcaster’s independence is “fully respected,” Yau highlighted that “there will never be editorial autonomy without responsibility, freedom without restraint,” as stipulated in RTHK’s producer guidelines.
The 157-page review heightens an already fraught situation for the broadcaster, which has come under attack by pro-Beijing factions for its coverage of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019. RTHK broke ground on police misconduct and live-streamed virtually every protest. One of its broadcasters, Nabela Qoser, became known for hard-hitting questions directed at Carrie Lam, the city’s top local official.
But thousands of complaints — most from the pro-establishment camp and even from the police chief — flooded the broadcaster. Last June, “Headliner,” a popular RTHK program showing satirical sketches about current affairs since 1989, was suspended. The broadcaster also became a target of state-linked media outlets, which attacked its defense of a journalist who, on an RTHK program, asked a World Health Organization official whether the agency would reconsider Taiwan’s membership, long blocked by Beijing.
The broadcaster stripped Qoser of a long-term contract and instead offered her a 120-day agreement, and reopened an investigation into her. Bao Choy, a former RTHK producer and now a contractor, was arrested for accessing a public database of car registrations, a routine journalistic practice, for an investigation into police failures during the 2019 protests.
Gladys Chiu, chairwoman of RTHK’s union, said the review is full of contradictions and weak reasoning, and it shows how the broadcaster has become a scapegoat amid the political turmoil. She said it is “sardonic” that Leung, the broadcast chief, is the only government head forced to step down after the political crisis in 2019, sparked by a deeply unpopular extradition bill that embodied residents’ concerns about China’s encroachment.
Officials are using administrative processes “to get rid of those who tell the truth, which reflects what’s going on in the city” more broadly, she said.
Reporters fear more limits to independent journalism are in the pipeline. Earlier this month, Lam vowed to introduce legislation combating “fake news” and hate speech, laws that have created problems for the news media elsewhere in the region, including Singapore.