Hong Kong Government Moves to Strengthen Editorial Control Over Broadcaster

Radio Television Hong Kong is losing its editorial independence with the publication of a government review, journalists' groups say.
Hong Kong Government Moves to Strengthen Editorial Control Over Broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) editor-in-chief Leung Ka-wing, in an undated photo.

Amid a citywide crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition under a draconian national security law imposed by Beijing, authorities in Hong Kong are replacing the head of the city's public broadcaster and reforming its editorial structure to "ensure it complies" with government directives.

In a move likely to call into question the editorial independence of Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the government announced on Friday that career bureaucrat Patrick Li would take over from Leung Ka-wing as editor-in-chief from March 1.

Leung has resigned six months ahead of his contract term to make way for the appointment.

“So, my time has come. After a five-and-a-half-year voyage together, we are running into turbulent waters," he wrote in an email to staff. "The memories of this time will remain with us forever, and we will be grateful for them."

"It's no surprise that favor has turned into disgrace. Leaving, staying: it's all the same to me," he said.

The move, which comes after repeated criticism of RTHK from senior figures including police commissioner Chris Tang and chief executive Carrie Lam, was lambasted by journalists as a further attack on press freedom in the city.

Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) chairman Chris Yeung said the fact that the review of RTHK's editorial management system is being proposed after these criticisms suggests that the main point of the report is to strengthen political control over the broadcaster's output.

"They are strengthening management and control at various levels so as to manage politically sensitive topics, especially anything critical of the government or the [pro-China] establishment," Yeung said.

"At best this will neutralize [RTHK] critical content, and at worst it will eliminate it completely," he said. "This could take the form of requests from management, but also lead to more serious forms of self-censorship [by journalists]."

He said government control over RTHK content could have a chilling effect on press freedom throughout the city.

'Inadequacies' in broadcaster operations

In its report published on Feb. 19, the Hong Kong government said there were "inadequacies" in the way RTHK, which was modeled on the BBC during British colonial rule, was run.

Further "training" would be needed to ensure staff knew what being a government broadcaster entailed, the report said.

It called for reforms in the way editorial decisions are made, including giving senior management a say in the editorial content of programs.

"Editorial decisions rest principally with individual production officers/team heads (generally at the Senior Programme Officer (SPO) level) based on their own judgment," the report said.

"The Editor-in-chief and senior management have been put in a passive position in the programme production process," it said, suggesting that programme-makers and journalists could soon be required to obey top-down directives with regard to the content they produce.

RTHK's Programme Staff Union chairwoman, Gladys Chiu said the move would make RTHK subordinate to the government.

"RTHK [should] serve the public ... not bureaucrats," Chiu said. "We have now become a political scapegoat."

"Editorial autonomy is over, and instead they will be putting strong pressure on anyone trying to tell the truth," she said. "What happened at RTHK today reflects what is going on across Hong Kong."

The government's move to reform editorial decision-making at RTHK comes after the broadcaster terminated the permanent civil service contract and benefits of journalist Nabela Qoser, who was known for her hard-hitting questioning of government officials.

Qoser's questioning of Lam in the wake of a July 31, 2019 attack by armed thugs on train passengers in Yuen Long at the height of the protest movement prompted Lam and other top officials to walk out of a news conference.

The probe continues despite Qoser's exoneration by a previous investigation into complaints about her, RTHK reported last month.

Reported by Lu Xi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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