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Can RTHK Retain Its Independence?

Over the past year, RTHK has faced increasing government pressure to promote national unity and axe controversial programmes. Tiffany Liang asks: Can the public broadcaster retain its independence?

RTHK (Illustration: Noel de Guzman)

Without fear or favour”; “Journalism is not a crime”; “Who wants the public kept in the dark?” read protesters’ placards outside the Fanling Magistrates’ Courts on 10 November 2020 as Bao Choy Yuk-ling exited the courtroom. A week earlier, on 3 November, police had arrested the Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) freelance producer on suspicion of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance.

According to police, Choy allegedly made “false statements” while using the government’s vehicle registration database to conduct research for an RTHK documentary called “Hong Kong Connection”. The politically sensitive documentary, which aired on 13 July 2020, investigated the police’s delayed response to the 2019 Yuen Long attacks on pro-democracy protesters.

While searching the database, Choy allegedly marked “traffic and transport-related matters” as the purpose of her search. In the past, journalists had an option to select “other reasons”; however, the government removed the choice in January 2020, as reported by Now TV.

At the time of publication, Choy’s trial has been adjourned until January 2021. If found guilty, she could face six months in prison and a fine of up to HK$5,000.

“I understand this incident is no longer a personal matter, but a matter related to public interest and press freedom in Hong Kong,” Choy, 37, told journalists and supporters as she left the courtroom on 10 November. “I truly believe I will not walk alone.”

Choy’s arrest is the latest in a string of government attacks on RTHK last year. In April 2020, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau accused RTHK of “breaching the One-China principle” following a March incident, in which a reporter asked the WHO whether it would reconsider Taiwan’s membership in light of the pandemic. 

Just weeks later, on 20 April, the Communications Authority (CA) issued a “serious warning” to RTHK about a November 2019 episode of “Pentaprism. According to the CA, the opinion show contained “baseless, misleading, biased and partial, and defamed and incited hatred against the government/police”.

In May, RTHK indefinitely suspended long-running satirical show “Headliner” after the CA issued another warning for a February episode that “denigrated” and “insulted” the police. And in September, RTHK extended the probation of Nabela Qoser, who is under investigation following complaints about her direct, confrontational style of questioning during the 2019 protests.

Several news organisations, media scholars, human rights watchdogs and lawmakers have condemned governmental intervention in RTHK, including Choy’s arrest. Some have argued that the government targeted Choy for political reasons, using a technicality to suppress investigative journalism. Others questioned what a government-controlled RTHK would mean for the city’s press freedom.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), for example, expressed “shock and anger” over the arrest in a joint statement with seven other media associations and press unions. “Many reports involving major public interests have been conducted through searches of the registry, including license plate searches,” read the statement, which was released on 3 November. “Now police abuse of the ‘Road Traffic Ordinance’ to suppress normal journalistic pursuits, will have a chilling effect and in turn undermine freedom of the press.” 

According to Chris Yeung, the chairman of the HKJA, Choy’s arrest signals a move to step up regulation and supervision of the media. “The government started imposing a ban on disclosure of information, including vehicle and marriage registrations, for journalists in 2019,” Yeung tells The Correspondent, adding that such research is common and necessary in journalism.

Keith Richburg, an FCC Correspondent Member Governor and the director of the HKU Journalism and Media Studies Centre, agrees: “The RTHK reporter was just doing her job. I am worried that [the government] is trying to undercut critical reporting.”

A police spokesman denied claims that the arrest qualifies as an attack on the media, stating that the Hong Kong police respects “press freedom” and “journalists’ right to report” on Commercial Radio’s “On a Clear Day” programme on 4 November.

Two days later, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a press conference that Choy’s arrest does not indicate a crackdown on press freedoms. “Please rest assured that press freedom is protected under the Basic Law,” said Lam. “We do not suppress journalism but, of course, journalists must obey the law.”

In response to The Correspondent’s enquiry, a police spokesperson wrote: “Police have all along respected press freedom and the media’s right of reporting. … All arrest actions taken by Police are strictly based on the evidence collected and in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong, regardless of the background and political stance of an individual.”

When The Correspondent reached out to RTHK and the government, both declined to comment on Choy’s case. However an Information Services Department (ISD) spokesperson provided the following comment:

“The Hong Kong SAR Government is firmly committed to protecting and respecting the freedom of the press, which is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Basic Law. … The background or occupation of the arrestee was not a factor for consideration. As the judicial proceedings of the case concerned are on-going, it is not appropriate for us to comment further.”

RTHK freelance producer Bao Choy Yuk-ling (centre) arrives at the Fanling Magistrates’ Courts in Hong Kong on 10 November 2020. (Photo credit: Peter Parks / AFP)

RTHK under review

The combination of government warnings, cancelled programmes, the national security law and, most recently, Choy’s arrest, has rattled RTHK staff. “We were in a panic when we learned Bao was arrested, busy backing up our files and records in the office. We felt depressed that she was accused of a crime while doing a routine task as a reporter,” says an RTHK reporter, who spoke to The Correspondent on the condition of anonymity.

“The fear comes from the lack of legal help for journalists – RTHK could not help Bao because she is a contract worker. RTHK can offer legal help for government workers, but they would need to seek assistance from the Department of Justice (DoJ). However, the DoJ is charging journalists. So what will happen then? How can we defend our rights?”

In response, an ISD spokesperson said civil servants “may apply for legal assistance from the Civil Service Bureau” if they are “charged with a criminal offence (other than corruption or corruption-related offences)” in the course of carrying out his or her duties. “The Government will consider each application on its own merits,” the spokesperson continued.

 RTHK Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing has also expressed concern about the news organisation’s future. “We are worried [about] whether we can continue the way we produce accurate news as before,” said Leung hours after Choy’s arrest, adding that RTHK will not alter its editorial principles or cease to conduct investigative journalism.

It may not be so easy to resist pressure, however, given that the Hong Kong government fully funds RTHK’s annual operational budget of roughly HK$1 billion. By comparison, most public broadcasters around the world receive some form of government funding, but it’s seldom the only source of revenue.

For instance, the BBC in the UK earns revenue through programme licensing fees and advertising, while NPR in the US relies on a mixture of government funding, corporate sponsorships and donations.

What’s more, the Hong Kong government is conducting a review of RTHK’s “administration, including financial control, human resources management and procurement matters” to address “wide public concern” over the broadcaster’s programming and ensure RTHK abides by its charter, according to a government statement. At publication, the review was scheduled to finish in 2020.

 The charter calls upon the broadcaster to promote “one country, two systems” and cultivate a “sense of citizenship and national identity”. At the same time, the charter stipulates editorial independence, as well as “accurate and impartial news, information, perspectives and analyses”.

When asked about RTHK’s role as a public broadcaster, an ISD spokesperson said: “In fulfilling its public purposes and mission as set out in the Charter, RTHK should abide by the relevant codes of practices issued by the Communications Authority, and give due weight and consideration to the advice provided by the Board of Advisors appointed by the Chief Executive to advise the Director of Broadcasting on the services of RTHK.”

RTHK suspended “Headliner”, a satirical show that has been on the air since 1989, in May following complaints about its portrayal of Hong Kong police. (Source: RTHK)

What’s at stake

Established in 1928, RTHK has long been a respected voice in Hong Kong. A series of “Public Evaluation on Media Credibility” surveys conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion between 1997 and 2019 show that respondents considered RTHK to be the most credible local electronic media source until 2016. In the subsequent survey, in 2019, RTHK dropped to second place behind Now TV.

“After the handover, clearly RTHK made real efforts to try and be dispassionate and objective in the way it covered, let’s say, last year’s disruptions and the government and the protesters,” said former New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson, who served as the BBC’s Director-General from 2004 to 2012, in an online talk with the FCC on 25 November 2020. “It feels like they’re under more pressure.”

That same independent streak has drawn complaints from pro-Beijing lawmakers over the past few years. During a legislative panel in March 2019, for example, Executive Councillor Regina Ip questioned the necessity of the broadcaster’s news department.

Last year, pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Junius Ho argued that RTHK should not attack the government while receiving government funding at a Legislative Council meeting on 6 May 2020. Ho also suggested merging the public broadcaster with the ISD, which serves as a public relations office for the government.

“The government thinks public broadcasters should toe the government’s line, since they are government-funded,” says Richburg. “That’s what is happening at RTHK … But the whole point of journalism is to be critical of the government, holding the government to account.”

If the government attempts to control RTHK’s content or transforms the broadcaster into a state media outlet, as some journalism watchdogs and associations fear, the city has much to lose.

“RTHK’s role has been important in view of the growing concerns that media outlets with close political and commercial ties to mainland authorities will lose their independence,” says Yeung.

“The editorial independence of RTHK is under threat from the government and the pro-Beijing camp. Press freedom will be severely weakened if the Hong Kong government replaces RTHK with state-owned media.”

According to a 2001 UNESCO report entitled “Public broadcasting: Why? How?”, public service broadcasters are an important part of the news ecosystem. “Public broadcasters encourage access to and participation in public life. They develop knowledge, broaden horizons and enable people to better understand themselves by better understanding the world and others,” states the report.

Furthermore, a 2017 white paper by the Knight Foundation outlined the many benefits of public broadcasters. According to the report, research has shown that people “exposed to news on public television are better-informed than those exposed to news on private TV”.

Public broadcasters also tend to minimise knowledge gaps between different socioeconomic groups, contribute to higher levels of social trust, and can reduce the risk of extremist political views, the report states.

The impact of public service journalism, however, depends on the news organisation’s ability to operate independently, explore diverse ideas, hold authorities accountable, and remain free from political influence and commercial pressures.

“Although some people are trying to combine RTHK with the Information Services Department under the government, Hong Kong people need an independent RTHK,” says Richburg.

“A public broadcaster’s role is to provide real news, not be a mouthpiece for [the] government. Right now, RTHK has credibility because it reports independently and critically. But the government is trying to shut down the voice of criticism, which only makes the role of journalism more essential.”

Born and raised in mainland China, Tiffany Liang came to Hong Kong in 2017 to start her career as a journalist. Having worked with HK01, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, Liang hopes to pursue human-interest stories and explore the business world.

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