It cannot be said strongly enough: the situation facing public broadcaster and PMA member RTHK in Hong Kong is deteriorating rapidly.

Hong Kong’s media landscape has become a regular feature in global headlines and several of our own reports in recent weeks. Just over a month ago, PMA published a ‘Focus On’ Hong Kong which presented several recent developments, including continued deteriorations in press freedom, increasing evidence of the influence of Beijing, and more limits on free speech. That piece highlighted the struggles facing both independent and public media in Hong Kong, dating back to 2019 – when there was a wave of attacks on journalist and arrests – and running to the beginning of this year, when we witnessed the continued fallout of the National Security Law.

Unfortunately, since our last report, there have been several negative developments at RTHK, highlighting the continued pressures the public broadcaster is facing in maintaining its editorial independence. These developments are detailed further below.

As advocates for media freedom and especially for public media, the Public Media Alliance continues to condemn any infringements of RTHK’s independence. As we recently stated, access to free and independent journalism is a fundamental human right and underpins informed citizenry and democracy.

» BBC ban at RTHK (11 February) → Within hours of a Chinese mainland ban of BBC World News broadcasts, allegedly due to “serious content violations”, RTHK announced that it would be following suit and would suspend its nightly live relay of the BBC World Service. No evidence of such content violations was provided. The decisions of both China’s television and radio regulator and RTHK have been denounced as further attacks on media freedom, curtailing the Hong Kong public’s access to impartial and independent media. The bans follow the UK’s own broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, revoking the licence of state broadcaster China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) to broadcast in the UK earlier this month. In explaining RTHK’s widely criticised decision, outgoing Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing said that he was responding to Beijing’s BBC ban. RTHK reported him saying, “Hong Kong is part of China and Radio Television Hong Kong is a department of the HKSAR Government. The decision has nothing to do with news operations.”

» Mandated pledge of allegiance (18 February) → In October 2020, RTHK’s staff received a circular which stated that, under Article 6 of the National Security Law, appointees to the civil service who had joined since the law’s enactment must sign a written declaration of their commitment to uphold the basic law. VOA reported that RTHK staff – employed as civil servants – were given until 18 February to sign their oaths of loyalty. Civil servants would be required to swear allegiance to Hong Kong while more senior appointees would also be required to take an oath. It is feared that the move – which could place staff at the public broadcaster in the precarious situation of having to choose between editorial independence and allegiance to the government – is likely to result in further self-censorship.

» Director of Broadcasting steps down (19 February) → A week after the BBC ban, it was announced that Leung Ka-wing would step down as RTHK’s Director of Broadcasting, six months ahead of the formal conclusion of his term. He will exit his post at the end of February, making way for the current Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Li Pak-chuen to take his place from 1 March. In response to the news of Leung’s departure, Gladys Chiu, chairperson of RTHK’s Programme Staff Union, said the role would have been better filled with someone from a media background. Expressing the union’s doubts, Chiu said the public broadcaster has lost its editorial independence while the government is seemingly aiming to replace RTHK’s professionalism with bureaucracy.

» RTHK review finds editorial management “deficiencies” (19 February) → In May 2020, the government announced that it would establish a team to review RTHK’s governance and management, following several reprimands over the broadcaster’s news coverage. The review was said to determine whether the broadcaster abides by its chartered principles. However, the review was criticised for its lack of independent oversight. On 19 February 2021, the Hong Kong government announced the review’s outcome, saying editorial management “deficiencies” and a lack of transparency in handling complaints were discovered. The 154-page review also provided recommendations, including the establishment of a more structured and documented decision-making system on contentious or difficult editorial issues.

» Funding cut (24 February) → After a particularly difficult two weeks for RTHK, it was further revealed that the public broadcaster’s funding would be cut in the 2021-22 budget. Total spending will decrease by 4.6%, from HK$1.04 billion to HK$995 million, Hong Kong Free Press reports.

In other news:

» RTHK show said to have insulted police (January 28) → As we noted in our previous update, RTHK has been on the receiving end of several official warnings from the Hong Kong Communications Authority. The public broadcaster has also seen a worsening relationship with the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) due to programmes critical of the police and public figures. On 28 January, the Communications Authority ruled that RTHK’s satirical programme Headliner deliberately denigrated and insulted the HKPF. According to the Authority, the 44 complaints against three episodes of the show were warranted. The public broadcaster was “strongly advised” to abide more closely to broadcasting regulations.

» Nabela Qoser signs new 120-day contract (January 30) → In November 2020, Nabela Qoser, a hard-hitting journalist well known for her questioning of public officials, had her three-year probation period extended following the reopening of an investigation of complaints from late 2019. The move was deemed “political persecution” by the RTHK Programme Staff Union. Amid the investigation, Qoser’s civil service contract was terminated, and she was offered a new 120-day contract. On January 30, RTHK reported that she had signed the new contract.

» Chief government official deems RTHK’s performance “unacceptable” (4 February) → Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has criticised RTHK once again, calling its performance “unacceptable”. Noting the complaints levelled at the public broadcaster in recent years, Lam said RTHK is badly in need of improvements. She further said that the Hong Kong government will be following up on the outcome of the government-imposed RTHK review.

» Covid-19 infection at RTHK (14 February) → A covid-19 infection at RTHK sent at least 26 people to quarantine. According to an RTHK report, the quarantines were mandated after an RTHK hairstylist became infected with the disease.

» Reclaimed RTHK building put up for sale (25 February) Months after RTHK was evicted from the former Educational Television Centre, the government has announced that it will be putting the building up for sale. RTHK reports that around 100 of its staff had been working at the building when the eviction notice was served last May, requiring a move to more cramped and rundown facilities. At the time, the building was said to be needed by the Education Bureau for its own office space. Now, the Bureau is saying that it no longer needs the space and the government building will instead be returned to the Lands Department.

Header Image: Central District – Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour – Hong Kong, Aerial View. Credit: CHUNYIP WONG/istock