Outcry After Hong Kong Broadcaster Axes BBC World Service in Favor of Chinese State Media

Analysts say denials by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) mask a deeper reality of political pressure and self-censorship.

Visitors examine radio sets at an electronics fair in Hong Kong, in a file photo.

News that Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK will cease rebroadcasting the BBC World Service on AM radio has prompted calls for its reinstatement, after the station said it would be replaced by programming in Mandarin from China's state broadcaster.

BBC World Service programming, which has been rebroadcast in the former British colony since 1978, will be replaced with China National Radio Hong Kong Edition from Sept. 4, ending nearly four decades of continuous broadcasting in the city, the station said.

The decision was taken to "enhance the cultural exchange between mainland China and Hong Kong," RTHK spokeswoman Amen Ng said.

BBC World Service programming will still be available after the nightly shutdown of RTHK Radio 4, however.

The move comes as media watchdogs cite growing influence wielded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party over the formerly freewheeling city's political life and media, saying Chinese money is largely behind self-censorship on the part of Hong Kong news organizations.

Ng told RFA the move wasn't politically motivated, however.

"I don't accept that this was a political arrangement," she said. "Otherwise, why would we have worked so hard to keep international broadcasters like the BBC? This entire decision has been RTHK's."

"We only have so many channels, and now that we no longer have digital channels, RTHK has been left with just three FM and four AM channels, seven in total," Ng told RFA. "We had to think of a way to include all important services in the mix, and ... China National Radio's Hong Kong Edition is tailored to our audience."

She dismissed claims of self-censorship at the flagship station.

"A lot of people have been asking me if we still have editorial independence at RTHK, and of course I tell them that we do," Ng said.

Growing influence

Earlier this year, the International Federation of Journalists said the city's media industry has effectively abandoned the last of its editorial independence, just 20 years after the 1997 handover agreement promised Hong Kong the maintenance of its existing freedoms for at least 50 years.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also warned against growing Chinese influence, pointing out that more than half of the city's media owners have roles in mainland politics, which means they are unlikely to want to upset Beijing.

U.S. lawmakers have also warned that Hong Kong has seen continual erosion of the freedoms and autonomy it was promised by Beijing under the terms of the handover treaty.

Democratic lawmaker Claudia Mo slammed the decision as a step backwards for Hong Kong, however.

"This is yet another step in the 'mainlandization' of Hong Kong," Mo said. "It is a huge step backwards, and clearly represents an attempt to wash away Hong Kong's colonial past, and bring in [Beijing's] own form of colonialism."

"This is about brainwashing, because ... Hong Kong has been wayward when it comes to ideology, so they are trying to make us more Chinese with their Mandarin-language channel from CCTV," she said.

Last year, a Hong Kong television station was swamped with complaints after it stopped using the city's lingua franca, Cantonese, on its prime-time news show, opting instead for Mandarin and subtitling it with the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China.

'National strategy'

Political commentator To Yiu-ming dismissed Ng's comments as RTHK making excuses.

"This is the sort of policy we have had since [President] Xi Jinping came to power five years ago," To told RFA. "It makes no difference whether anyone was watching or listening to this stuff: there is now far more [Chinese state] programming available in Hong Kong than there was 10 years ago."

"They now have a direct line of communication to the people of Hong Kong, and it's clear that this is part of their national strategy," To said. "It's also noteworthy that Hong Kong didn't dare to refuse this, didn't dare to reclaim a channel that was ceded to CCTV."

Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the move would damage public trust in RTHK.

"It's not very normal behavior for them to cancel a channel that has been operating for so many years," Lui said. "CCTV certainly doesn't have that long a history [in Hong Kong]."

"The loss of the BBC World Service will also erode trust in Hong Kong as a global city, so I think it will have some impact."

"People who want to listen to CRI [state-owned China Radio International] have other ways to do that, including online."

A petition on the campaign website Avaaz calling for the reinstatement of BBC World Service said its impending removal makes the city feel "more parochial and inward‐looking."

"RTHK is ignoring the fact that thousands of people in Hong Kong regularly enjoy the BBC World Service, and will be deeply saddened by its axeing," the text of the petition, which had garnered several hundred signatures on Monday, said.

"We therefore call on RTHK to provide the China National News Hong Kong Edition with an additional AM radio wavelength to broadcast on in Hong Kong, thereby allowing the BBC World Service to keep being heard on AM 675," the petition said.

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.