While Hong Kong maintained its position of 80th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the realities on the ground spell troubling times ahead, both for public broadcaster RTHK and the wider media environment.

This reality has been playing out for some time now. Since the passage of the National Security Law by Beijing in June 2020, PMA has featured numerous updates about Hong Kong. These updates have increased in frequency – just in the past four months, we’ve written about developments in Hong Kong five times – and each update intensifies our concern for independent media in Hong Kong media and particularly for that of our member, RTHK.

This latest update is no different.

RTHK’s charter-enshrined independence is under threat and wider developments within the Special Administrative Region (SAR), such as the proposed use of the security law to tackle “fake news”, will have dire implications for the public broadcaster. None of these developments are encouraging and they beg the question: what will become of independent media in Hong Kong?

As always, the Public Media Alliance will continue to closely monitor and report on developments within RTHK and Hong Kong. While the situation seems ever-worsening, PMA continues to strongly advocate for an environment where Hong Kong journalists can report fairly and freely, without fear of persecution, violence, arbitrary arrest, and political pressures. After all, as recently convicted RTHK journalist Bao Choy said, journalism is not a crime.

Below, we have pulled together some of the most recent developments and changes to Hong Kong’s public and general media landscape.

» RTHK producer found guilty over report → On 22 April, RTHK journalist Bao Choy was found guilty of improperly accessing an online car licence plate database for her work on an award-winning documentary. Choy conducted the search to determine car ownership details for vehicles linked to violent attacks on pro-democracy protestors in July 2019. She was convicted of two counts of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance by making false statements as to the purpose of her searches, RTHK reported.

While Choy was not jailed and was instead fined HK$6,000, the conviction is still a blow to media freedom. Hong Kong journalists have long accessed the database as part of their work and Choy’s conviction signal a troubling shift. Authorities have also said that they will no longer allow such searches.

Speaking to the media shortly after her court hearing, Choy said, “Today is a very dark day for all journalists in Hong Kong, not just for me personally…it’s a ruling on journalism in Hong Kong and a ruling on all journalists in Hong Kong.” She further emphasised that Hong Kong was once well-known for its transparency and accountability.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) strongly denounced Choy’s conviction and said it was clear she was singled out and punished for a search that is routinely conducted by Hong Kong’s journalists. “The government’s actions against Choy set a dangerous precedent. They open the door to further legal action against journalists for engaging in routine reporting. They will also deter journalists from accessing legally available public records in Hong Kong,” FCC said. Another journalist has already been arrested on a similar charge.

Following news of Choy’s arrest in November 2020, then Chief of RTHK, Leung Ka-wing, said staff were “afraid” and “worried” but he reaffirmed the broadcaster’s commitment to the principle of editorial independence. It can only be expected that Choy’s conviction will lend again to fear and worry within RTHK and drive self-censorship among its journalists.

» Bureaucrats at RTHK → After announcing that several posts would be created to help management implement recommendations from a government review report, which found so-called “deficiencies” in editorial management, RTHK last week hired four bureaucrats for both short- and long-term positions, as reported by SCMP and RTHK. Former Director of Administration, Kitty Choi Kit-yu, has been hired on a short-term basis to provide advice on the implementation of the report’s recommendations. Meanwhile, Freda Cheung Yun-chee, a former Assistant Secretary for Labour and Welfare; Jimson Chan, a Principal Entertainment Standards Control Officer for content regulation at the Communications Authority; and Wilma Wong, an Entertainment Standards Control Officer for content regulation with the Communications Authority, have been hired as “special support”. Cheung has been hired as a senior manager, Chan as a manager, and Wong as an assistant manager. RTHK’s Programme Staff Union raised serious concerns that bureaucrats with no broadcasting experience would be more likely to make suggestions that “depart from professional judgment”.

» RTHK in “transition period” → RTHK is said to be in a “transition period” as it “reviews its operation in all aspects”. The broadcaster revealed this information as it refused another journalism award for an episode of Hong Kong Connection about the 2019 Yuen Long mob attacks. RTHK won the award last Wednesday, a day before Bao Choy, one of the documentary’s producers, was convicted for her work on the very report.

In rejecting the award, the broadcaster’s Head of Corporate Communications & Standards, Echo Wai, said, “The intellectual property rights of Radio Television Hong Kong programmes belong to RTHK” and that “during the transition period, RTHK decided not to nominate programmes for awards, would also withdraw their entries from those competitions, and would not accept related awards.” RTHK has not announced any details about this transition period, such as its purpose and expected outcomes.

» RTHK journalist resigns → An award-winning journalist who received backlash for months over an interview she conducted has reportedly resigned from RTHK. Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reports that Yvonne Tong came under fire last year for her interview with Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, Bruce Aylward, who appeared to evade her questions about Taiwan’s status at the WHO. The WHO later accused RTHK of distorting the interview but the public broadcaster rejected this accusation.

Tong, an RTHK journalist since 2014, received attacks by state-run media over her line of questioning and had her personal information shared on pro-Beijing websites. The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau claimed that the show had violated the “One China” principle and RTHK’s charter. SCMP reported that at least 11 employees resigned from RTHK between January and March 2021, while at least five senior staff members from the current affairs division have also quit since the arrival of the new broadcasting director in March.

In other news

» Jimmy Lai sentenced, charged again → Apple Daily owner and pro-democracy supporter Jimmy Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison after being found guilty of unauthorised assembly. Apple Daily is one of Hong Kong’s most widely read, pro-democracy newspapers. At the time of his sentencing, Lai faced six additional charges. Additional charges were brought against him the day he was sentenced, including another one under the national security law.

» Security law could be deployed against press → Accusing a local media outlet of dividing society and inciting hate, Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang has warned that the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) could use the National Security Law to tackle “fake news”. Speaking to the media, Tang said that there are currently no “fake news” laws, but he said suspected breaches may be analysed to determine if they violated the security law or committed acts of incitement. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has expressed concerns at the Commissioner’s statement, saying the security law could be “weaponised” to target the press.

» ‘Disloyal’ civil servants to be fired → The Hong Kong government has said about 129 civil servants who refused to sign pledges of allegiance will be fired. Anadolu Agency reports that the government will expedite the termination of “disloyal employees” who refused to sign the written declaration on their commitment to uphold the basic law. The pledge of allegiance was enacted under Article 6 of the security law. The undermining of freedom of speech was cited in some cases as a reason for refusing to sign the pledge.

As civil servants, all RTHK’s employees are required to pledge their allegiance while more senior civil servants would also be required to take an oath. This pledge could further self-censorship and leave RTHK’s staff in the precarious situation of having to choose between editorial independence and allegiance to the government.

The Public Media Alliance condemns the ongoing repression of independent and public media in Hong Kong. The intensifying steps to curtail the ability of news outlets and their journalists, to effectively hold power to account only furthers the death knell for the SAR’s fragile democracy.


Header Image: Hong Kong, Kowloon, Kowloon Peninsula. Credit: CHUNYIP WONG/iStock