Hong Kong mulls relaxation of media impartiality rules for 'patriotic' content

The move will pave the way for the airing of content made in mainland China.
By Gigi Lee for RFA Cantonese
2023.07.19
Hong Kong mulls relaxation of media impartiality rules for 'patriotic' content Chinese and Hong Kong flags hang over Hong Kong. Hong Kong broadcasters are required to deliver at least 30 minutes of patriotic or national security-related programming each week.
Credit: Kin Cheung/AP file

Hong Kong authorities are planning to relax impartiality rules for broadcasters delivering patriotic programming designed to teach people loyalty to the government and to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, according to a recent consultation document.

The city's Communications Authority is inviting public input on a "proposed relaxation" of broadcasters' code of practice that will allow TV and radio stations to ignore impartiality requirements if they are educating the public about the national security law banning public criticism of the government, or promoting patriotism and a sense of Chinese identity.

The move, which will likely further erode any remaining difference between Hong Kong and other Chinese cities, comes amid an ongoing program of patriotic education in schools and universities since the national security law was imposed on the city in 2020.

"[Such] programmes ... promote the correct understanding of our nation which is conducive to the building of national identity and protection of national security," according to the consultation document.

Broadcasters have pointed out that such content violates the impartiality clauses in their licenses. 

But including views that oppose the national security law and the ongoing crackdown on dissent could mean they risk breaking the law, according to the document.

"The inclusion of objection to the national security law just for the sake of observing the impartiality requirement might risk the licensees breaching the relevant law," it said, saying it now proposes waiving impartiality requirements for such content.

Patriotic programming

Hong Kong broadcasters are currently required to deliver at least 30 minutes of patriotic or national security-related programming a week.

The changes will also pave the way for the airing of content made by Chinese state media in Hong Kong, where press freedom rankings have plummeted in the wake of a citywide crackdown on civil groups, opposition politicians and pro-democracy media organizations.

Most mainland programming currently doesn't make the grade for rebroadcast in Hong Kong under current impartiality requirements.

The plans come as the Communist Party starts to wield greater control over "national security" in the city via the Hong Kong and Macau Work Office, which has been charged with deploying the power of the central government to implement the national security law, which criminalizes public criticism of the authorities by anyone, anywhere in the world.

ENG_CHN_HKNatSec_07182023.2.jpg
Hong Kong actors Tsang Chi-ho [left] and Ng Chi-sum act in the satirical television show "Headliner" at a studio in Hong Kong on June 17, 2020. Radio Television Hong Kong canceled the show after it took aim at police. Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP

The office is also charged with "supporting" the integration of both Hong Kong and Macau with the rest of China.

The proposed new rules entirely serve the needs of the government, rather than viewers and listeners, according to former broadcast show host and current affairs commentator Johnny Lau.

"It's hard to grasp the logic of these rules," Lau said. "The government's red lines are constantly changing, making them hard to adapt to."

"It seems that the government is just making up the rules to suit their own needs," he said. "They even admit that mainland Chinese media content isn't impartial."

Understanding the mainland

The consultation document said allowing more mainland Chinese content would be educational for Hong Kongers.

"Given the increasing economic integration with the mainland and particularly the Greater Bay Area, there is merit in giving licensees more flexibility in direct re-transmitting or broadcasting acquired programmes from reputable sources on the mainland with a view to offering more programme choices and promoting the understanding of the mainland," it said.

The Communications Authority last amended impartiality rules in 2012 after receiving more than 42,000 complaints that the now-defunct ATV had shown bias in its reporting of a student movement against patriotic education in Hong Kong's schools.

That iteration of the rules required broadcasters to deal with "controversial issues of public concern" as opinion or commentary, and to ensure that a variety of opinions were heard, and currently remain in force.

The authority also received complaints during the 2019 protest movement that some media reports were "unfair" to the police, who were widely criticized at the time for their violent response to protesters.

In May 2020, government broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong axed the top satirical show "Headliner" after it poked fun at police denials of violence against pro-democracy protesters, and apologized, saying some archived episodes would also be removed.

The move came shortly after the Communications Authority issued a warning to the station for "denigrating and insulting" the police in a February episode of the show.

And in September 2021, the government rewrote editorial guidelines at RTHK requiring its producers and journalists to uphold China's national interests and avoid "glorifying" or depicting "criminal" activities that could incite others to do the same.

In an apparent reference to the reporting of protests, the guidelines said the station should avoid portraying the actions of "criminals or criminal suspects" as "glorious, heroic deeds."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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