Hong Kong Broadcaster Fires Reporter, Deletes Critical Programs

2021-05-03
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Hong Kong Broadcaster Fires Reporter, Deletes Critical Programs The offices of Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK are shown in a file photo.
Reuters

Hong Kong's government broadcaster fired an outspoken journalist and began deleting online programming on World Press Freedom Day on Monday, amid an ongoing crackdown on critical voices in the city.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), a government department that had enjoyed editorial independence before a draconian national security law banned criticism of the authorities, said it wouldn't renew the short-term contract of Nabela Qoser after her hard-hitting questioning of city officials during the 2019 protest movement.

Management had earlier terminated the permanent civil service contract of TV current affairs anchor Qoser, in a move that was widely condemned as political interference in the media.

Qoser fired a series of hard-hitting questions at chief executive Carrie Lam in the wake of a July 31, 2019 attack by armed thugs on train passengers in Yuen Long, prompting Lam and other top officials to walk out of a news conference.

The station "re-opened" the investigation into her professional conduct despite her exoneration by a previous investigation into complaints about her.

RTHK was later criticized by police commissioner Chris Tang over its reporting of police violence during the protests.

The government in February announced changes to the editorial chain-of-command, replacing the director of broadcasting and reforming RTHK's editorial structure to "ensure it complies" with government directives.

Career bureaucrat Patrick Li took over from Leung Ka-wing as editor-in-chief from March 1.

Meanwhile, the station reported that Hong Kong people were rushing to save copies of its programs as the station began removing copies of its older programs from the internet.

"RTHK noted that it has long removed news stories and programmes from its official website after a year, and said deleting material from YouTube that is older than 12 months is consistent with this policy," according to an RTHK English news report.

Satire, reports removed

Hong Kong Connection documentaries and episodes of axed satirical show Headliner were among the first to be taken down from the free video platform, it said.

The producer of one documentary film in the Hong Kong Connection series about the Yuen Long attacks, Bao Choy, was recently fined after being prosecuted for "misuse" of a license plate search facility in connection with her research on the movements of the Yuen Long attackers in the run-up to the violence.

Choy's film, together with films probing police violence during the 2019 protests, including an attack by armed riot police on train passengers inside Prince Edward MTR on Aug. 31, 2019, were among the first to be deleted.

A platform called SaveRTHK has been set up to make the programs available following their deletion from YouTube and other sites, RTHK said.

"After [RTHK] was painted red by [director of broadcasting] Patrick Li, all its contents will be removed from the shelves. To ensure history will not be forgotten, internet users have decided to upload the programmes here," it quoted the platform as saying in a statement.

Fu King-wah, associate professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, said the move likely spelled the end of RTHK's editorial independence.

"This whole operation is designed to turn RTHK into a government-controlled operation," Gu said. "Frontline reporters are leaving, and some programs have been axed or removed."

"At the same time, there is more officially sanctioned content, which is basically propaganda," he said.

Chief executive Carrie Lam recently began her own show on RTHK, in which she interviews pro-China figures on topics likely to be approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Following the restructuring in March, RTHK management announced the station would air Lam's daily show four times a day, to "engender a sense of citizenship and national identity."

Off-limits topics

Hong Kong Journalists' Association chairman Chris Yeung said there are now many topics that are off-limits to journalists, including criticisms of police violence.

Journalists who continue to produce content critical of the government are being increasingly denounced as "fake reporters," Yeung told RFA.

"Government officials see some reports in the media that aren't what they would want to see, and they call them inaccurate, or 'fake news'," Yeung said, adding that legislation will likely be brought in to combat critical journalism.

"It's hard for the media to stay healthy in such an environment," he said. "It's not just political pressure; it's actually part of a high-risk game of politics."

"It's getting harder and harder to operate here, and the risks are getting higher and higher, so I think Hong Kong will lose a lot of media organizations," Yeung said.

The HKJA's annual press freedom survey showed that indicators of press freedom were at an all-time low in the city.

It cited "doubt or hesitation" when criticizing the authorities, narrowing access to information and threats to personal safety as driving factors behind the fall.

Ninety-one percent of the nearly 400 journalists interviewed for the survey said press freedom had gotten worse compared with just one year ago, before the national security law took effect on July 1, 2020.

Forty percent said their editors had put pressure on them to minimize any reporting of pro-independence sentiment, while 69 percent said they felt uncomfortable reporting on dissent.

The national security law was cited as having the biggest impact on press freedom, with the police raid on the headquarters of Next Digital and changes to accreditation procedures allowing police to define who is and isn't a journalist were listed in second or third place.

Bao Choy's prosecution for searching vehicle license plate records was listed in fourth place, and the December 2020 mass firing of i-Cable's news department in fifth place, it said.

Reported by Gigi Lee and Lu Xi for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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