After National Security Law, China's leash on Hong Kong tightens as it chokes broadcaster RTHK

RTHK has also found itself caught in geopolitical wrangling between China and Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory

The New York Times July 09, 2020 07:34:19 IST
After National Security Law, China's leash on Hong Kong tightens as it chokes broadcaster RTHK

Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s public broadcaster has long been a rare example of a government-funded news organisation operating on Chinese soil that fearlessly attempts to hold officials accountable.

The broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, dug into security footage last year to show how police failed to respond when a mob attacked protesters in a train station, leading to widespread criticism of authorities. The broadcaster also produced a three-part documentary on China’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. One RTHK journalist, Nabela Qoser, became famous in Hong Kong for her persistent questioning of top officials.

Now RTHK’s journalists and hard-hitting investigations appear vulnerable to China’s new national security law, which takes aim at dissent and could rein in the city’s largely freewheeling news organisations. The broadcaster, modelled on the British Broadcasting Corporation, has already been feeling pressure.

RTHK has drawn fire in recent months from police, establishment lawmakers and pro-Beijing activists. Its critics have filed thousands of complaints accusing the broadcaster of bias against the government and regularly protest outside its studios.

“If you want to enjoy freedom, you have obligations to follow,” said Innes Tang, chairman of Politihk Social Strategic, a nonprofit pro-Beijing group that has organised protests and petitions against RTHK. “You cannot use fake news to attack people. That is not part of freedom of expression.”

As the objections mounted, RTHK was forced to suspend a satirical programme that made fun of the police. It was criticised by the Hong Kong government for asking the World Health Organisation if Taiwan could join the global health body from which Beijing has shut it out. The broadcaster faces a formal government review into its operations starting next week.

The sweeping national security law China imposed last week on Hong Kong is directed at quelling the pro-democracy protest movement that roiled the territory last year, but it also calls for tougher regulation of the media. The worry is that the law will be used to muzzle outlets by requiring publishers and broadcasters to avoid content and discussions that could be seen by authorities as subversive. The worst-case fear is that RTHK, as a government department, could be forced to become an organ of State propaganda.

The city’s news outlets have faced an onslaught. Reporters covering protests have been pepper-sprayed and detained by police. Jimmy Lai, publisher of the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, was one of several opposition figures arrested early this year, and State media has accused him of fomenting unrest.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers have urged the government to register journalists. The new security law also calls for a group of government bodies, including the national security office, to oversee foreign journalists, raising concerns about the erosion of press freedoms.

A reporter asked Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, at a briefing Tuesday if she would guarantee that journalists in the city would be free to report with the new law in place. Lam responded that if “all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 percent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same.”

Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer of journalism at City, University of London who worked for RTHK in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said the broadcaster was in an “extremely perilous situation” because its status as a government department made it easier for Beijing to exert control.

The news organisation appears to be taking preemptive steps to avoid falling afoul of the security law. In recent weeks, several RTHK journalists say, editors have told reporters not to emphasise pro-independence slogans in their news reports.

After National Security Law Chinas leash on Hong Kong tightens as it chokes broadcaster RTHK

Ng Chi-sum portrays Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam as an out-of-touch empress for RTHK’s satirical program 'Headliners'. By Lam Yik Fei © 2020 The New York Times

An RTHK spokeswoman, Amen Ng, said that RTHK journalists “have been doing their job professionally” but added that the broadcaster was not a “platform to promote Hong Kong independence.”

But there were already signs in RTHK’s newsroom that a chill was setting in.

Kirindi Chan, a top RTHK executive, announced unexpectedly in June that she would resign, citing health reasons. Days later, she met with RTHK reporters, who pressed her if she was being forced out over their coverage of the anti-government demonstrations. Chan denied being ousted, but she sought to deliver some solemn advice.

Chan reminded the reporters and producers of their role as civil servants and urged them to comply with the government’s code of conduct, according to two people who attended the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter.

She did not go into details, but the civil service code calls for impartiality and loyalty to the government, values authorities have stressed to discourage government employees from joining the protests.

Over an RTHK career of nearly three decades, Chan earned the respect of her staff for being a staunch defender of the organisation’s editorial independence. At the end of the sombre half-hour meeting, the reporters gave Chan a bouquet of red and yellow tulips, but an employees union said her departure was an ominous sign.

“We worry that Ms. Chan’s resignation would set the scene for further attacks on RTHK,” the union said in a statement.

RTHK has also found itself caught in geopolitical wrangling between China and Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory.

In April, the government criticised RTHK over an interview the broadcaster ran with a World Health Organisation official, Dr Bruce Aylward, who was asked whether Taiwan should be allowed to participate in the health body. Taiwan had been shut out by Beijing in recent years.

In an awkward exchange that highlighted the sensitivity of the topic, Aylward first said he did not hear the question, then asked to move on. When the reporter repeated it, the line went dead; minutes later, asked again, Aylward replied, “We’ve already talked about China.” The interaction gave further ammunition to critics who say the health body is unduly beholden to Beijing.

Edward Yau, the Hong Kong secretary for commerce and economic development, which supervises RTHK, accused the broadcaster of having breached China’s official stance toward Taiwan. Such a rebuke now carries more significance against the backdrop of the security law, which focuses heavily on perceived threats to China’s sovereignty.

If RTHK were forced to adopt a new role as a broadcaster that serves as the voice of the government, it would be the culmination of a decades-long campaign by its pro-Beijing critics.

RTHK was founded as a government radio station in 1928, when Hong Kong was a British colony, and broadcast official bulletins for half a century before it set up its own newsroom in 1973. Not long after the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997, pro-Beijing politicians started urging RTHK to fall in line with the central government.

Editorial independence is enshrined in RTHK’s charter. But unlike the United States or Britain, where public broadcasting is given greater autonomy from the government through nonprofit corporations, RTHK is a government department, which makes it far more vulnerable to official intervention.

The government flexed its grip over RTHK most overtly in May when it complained about Headliner, a satirical program that had taken pointed jabs at the police. That prompted the broadcaster to apologise and suspend the show, a decision that caused some alarm within the organisation.

“If those who are in power cannot tolerate Headliner, then their intolerance will extend to other current affairs programs,” said Gladys Chiu, chairwoman of RTHK’s labour union.

On a recent Wednesday, the staff of Headliner gathered in RTHK’s aging studio for a final shoot. Ng Chi-sum, a longtime host of the show, portrayed Carrie Lam as Cixi, the out-of-touch empress dowager during the final decline of the Qing dynasty, donning a gaudy headdress, a fake pearl necklace and a gown.

The hosts kept up a light banter between takes, but off camera, Ng, 61, spoke gloomily of the show’s prospects and those of the city itself.

“The worst is yet to come,” Ng said. “The overall trend nowadays is an exhaustive takeover of Hong Kong.”

Austin Ramzy and Ezra Cheung c.2020 The New York Times Company

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