The editorial independence of Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK comes under increasing pressure as a new security law poses a direct threat to journalists and press freedom

The new law will make it a crime to undermine Beijing’s authority in Hong Kong, with fears that any criticism of China’s leadership will lead to punishment.

China’s parliament, The National People’s Congress (NPC), has overwhelmingly backed new security legislation that will modify Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The draft, which will now be put to senior leadership in Beijing, would fundamentally change the city’s unique freedoms and suggests criminalising any act of succession, subversion, terrorism and activities of foreign forces that interfere with the city.

The legislation will also allow Beijing to set up its own security institutions in the city for the first time.

In particular, the suggested ban on “succession” and “subversion of state power” could effectively end freedom of speech, assembly and the press. The law has been widely critiqued as an attempt by Beijing to legitimise the arrest of protesters and even retroactively prosecute those criticising China’s leadership or exercising their rights under the current law.

According to Hong Kong’s Basic Law and so-called “one country, two systems” principle, the city is meant to have protected freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly and speech, and other democratic rights that aren’t present in mainland China.

Read more: Hong Kong security law: What is it and is it worrying?

The planned security laws ignited the first large-scale protests for months ahead of its passing through the NCP, which resulted in at least 360 arrests on Wednesday according to The Guardian.

Video: Hong Kong police conduct mass arrests in Mong Kok during protest against Beijing encroachment. 27 May 2020. Credit: Hong Kong Free Press

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has agreed to cooperate with Beijing and dismissed concerns that the new laws could threaten Hong Kong’s freedoms, saying that they “will continue to be there”. She also added that “Rights and freedoms are not absolute.”

Read more: Media associations appeal for police to not obstruct reporters

However, under the “one country, two systems” principle Hong Kong must draft its own security law, which could lead to further complications and protests should Beijing choose to push through the proposed security measures.

Cédric Alviani, head of RSF’s East Asia Bureau, said: “National security is the pretext that the Chinese authorities most often use to justify imprisoning journalists in conditions that pose a threat to their lives, sometimes even going so far as to impose a life sentence.”

With 2,878 votes in favour and just one against, the NCP’s decision means more detailed legislation will now be drafted. Final approval is expected within the next few months.

Pressure on public broadcaster

Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), has also come under considerable pressure following a government demand for a review into its management and practices.

The demand comes after a number of warnings issued by the Communications Authority in recent months, including a warning for “denigrating and insulting” the police in an episode of its satirical show Headliner in February. The broadcaster is frequently accused of being biased against the government by pro-Beijing supporters.

It is understood that the review also stems from a reprimand in April in response to an interview with a senior World Health Organisation official in which journalist Yvonne Tong asked about Taiwan’s status in the organisation. RTHK denied claims that it had breached its charter while its union released a statement titled “We Have Lost the Freedom to Ask Questions”.

Now, a dedicated task force from the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) will review whether RTHK abides by the principles of its charter citing supposed “wide public concerns” over its governance, management and “codes of practice on programming standards [as] issued by the CA [Communications Authority].”

However, the decision to set up a task force has been heavily criticised, with IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok describing it as an “unprecedented move to control the public broadcaster”, due to the task force’s lack of independence from the Hong Kong government. There are concerns that this would allow it to intervene in programme standards and eventually turn the station into a government mouthpiece.

Read more: RTHK always complies with its charter, says chief

In an attempt to quell concerns about the broadcaster’s independence, an RTHK spokesperson said: “The Director of Broadcasting will provide full support to the exercise. Members of the review team will not take part in any programme production or editorial decisions of RTHK”.

On Friday, RTHK’s Director of Broadcasting, Leung Ka-wing, insisted that staff always follow the broadcaster’s charter, despite complaints of “serious non-compliance” by the Chairman of the Board of Advisors.

The task force will report their findings to the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, which oversees RTHK.

In other developments

The Hong Kong government has told RTHK to vacate one of its key buildings, the Educational Television Centre, after it ceased to make ETV programmes in March.

The abrupt demand means 90 members of staff and broadcast equipment will need to be relocated by September, with limited to no space available at the broadcaster’s three other buildings.

“I don’t think ‘shocked’ is the right word, but it is really short notice,” station spokeswoman Amen Ng told reporters earlier this month. Ng told reporters that RTHK hoped to negotiate and push back the move to the first quarter of 2021.

The demand has only added to the significant pressure faced by RTHK, which has been strained for resources in recent years. It has also raised further questions as to whether the move is politically motivated in an attempt to further oppress the broadcaster.

Header Image: A fireman extinguishes a blaze at the entrance to Central station in Hong Kong as a large group of journalists, mostly photojournalists, document the scene. (September 8, 2019). Credit: Joel Carillet/iStock