An ongoing investigation into a hard-hitting journalist with Hong Kong's government broadcaster RTHK will have a "chilling effect" on the city's news organizations, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) warned on Monday.
The RTHK Programme Staff Union said on Sunday it had received news that the station management will reopen a probe into the work performance of TV presenter Nabela Qoser, whose questions of chief executive Carrie Lam in the wake of a July 31 attack by armed thugs on train passengers in Yuen Long prompted Lam and other top officials to walk out of a news conference.
The union described the broadcaster’s decisions to reopen the investigation into complaints against Qoser and extend her probationary period by 120 days as "political persecution," RTHK reported.
Qoser, a Hong Kong-born journalist of Pakistani descent, asked Lam where she was on the night of the attack, which went on for nearly 40 minutes before police showed up at the scene, demanding: "How could you sleep last night?"
"The Hong Kong Journalists Association is concerned about [the reopening of the investigation ], and worries that journalists who raise pointed questions will be subjected to suppression in their workplaces," the HKJA said in a statement on its Facebook page.
"[This] will eventually create a chilling effect," it said.
RTHK staff, as civil servants, are required to submit to at least performance appraisals over a three-year probationary period, but the process doesn't include public complaints.
Qoser's probationary period had been due to end, but has been extended pending the renewed investigation, the staff union said on its Facebook page.
"The sudden re-opening of the investigation and the extension of the probationary period are not only unfair to Qoser; they also undermine the entire civil service appraisal system," the HKJA said.
"If journalists are subjected to criticism, suppression, or political censorship just for doing their jobs ... they will no longer be able to speak up against injustice," the group said.
RTHK union members staged a protest outside the station's headquarters on Monday as a new advisory board convened in the wake of complaints of anti-government bias against the organization met.
'A form of political suppression'
Union president Chiu Sin-yan said the reinvestigation of Qoser seemed to be politically motivated.
"We tend to believe that this is a form of political suppression," Chiu said. "This investigation was previously closed ... so if it can be reopened indefinitely, we think the intention behind this is self-evident."
Chiu said the reasons given by RTHK director of broadcasting Leung Ka-wing during a meeting on were insufficient.
HKJA chairman Chris Yeung said the move will likely have a further chilling effect on the city's journalists.
"It is worrying because if news organizations cave in to political pressure from the authorities and put pressure on journalists, even if they dress it up as non-renewal of a contract or ... sacking for other reasons, this ... will have a chilling effect on the whole industry," Yeung said.
A warning to others
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University said the singling out of Qoser is intended as a warning to all journalists.
"Is this to be the fate of journalists or media organizations seen as less obedient by the government?" Lui said. "I'm sure many will be wondering if they should be less outspoken ... and not do anything wrong."
As China imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong on June 30, Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of Beijing's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, and Lam both hit out at some media organizations for "smearing" the authorities in their criticisms of government and police.
The law stipulates that the media should be "subject to better supervision, management, publicity, and education," Lui said.
"So it is not surprising that the authorities have targeted the media with various actions," he said.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting wrote to RTHK on Monday saying that there was no new information that would justify a reinvestigation of Qoser's performance.
He told its reporters: "I strongly urge the senior management of RTHK to uphold the freedom of expression, freedom of the press and editorial autonomy, and to try to defend their professional reporters and journalists and let them to perform their duties professionally and independently."
But Lam Tai-fai, chairman of the RTHK advisory board, declined to comment on the move when asked by journalists on Monday.
"I am not in a good position to comment (on) the employment situation," Lam said. "Whether it’s fair or not fair, it’s not my job and also I cannot make a comment with my limited knowledge in this area."
No support for police, government
The reinvestigation into Qoser's work comes after broadcasting regulator the Communications Authority issued a warning to RTHK following public complaints that its TV show Pentaprism hadn't upheld a wide enough range of views, namely those in support of police and government.
Qoser, a Hong Kong Baptist University graduate, has previously worked at TVB and Ming Pao, and has been subjected to online racist abuse, according to Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission.
RTHK is a fully funded department of the Hong Kong government, but has been criticized by pro-China politicians and officials for alleged anti-government bias.
In May 2020, it axed a top satirical show that poked fun at police denials of violence against pro-democracy protesters, and apologized, after the Communications Authority issued a warning to the station for "denigrating and insulting" the police in a February episode of the show.
The decision to reinvestigate Qoser's performance comes after the city's police force said it would no longer recognize credentials issued by the HKJA, as was previously the case, saying it would now decide which media organizations were legitimate.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.