Hong Kong: Trust in broadcaster RTHK falls

17th June 2022
A new study shows trust in RTHK has dropped over the past two years, while independent media faces sustained pressures and threats.
RTHK night
RTHK's Antenna together with Hong Kong's night scene. Credit: Claude Tam/iStock

The Hong Kong public’s trust in RTHK has dropped by ten percent since 2020. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2022 showed that public trust in RTHK stood at 53%, compared to 59% in 2021 and 63% in 2020.

RTHK was rare in seeing trust drop compared to other mainstream news brands in Hong Kong. According to the report, “Trust in most specific brands has increased somewhat.” But RTHK’s decline is not a surprise given the radical transformation that has happened at the once public broadcaster.

Over the past two years, there has been a significant deterioration of independence at RTHK. Government interference and political appointments have seen programmes cancelled, censorship heightened, new controversial editorial guidelines, and an exodus of staff.

Read more: Six dark months – A timeline of RTHK’s decline

The change in programming and editorial direction has clearly had a consequence for the public’s ability to trust the media organisation. RTHK’s trust rating is not drastically different compared to some other public service media organisations around the world – the BBC is at 55%, France Télévisions at 53%, NHK at 57%, and KBS at 49%. However, these broadcasters are ranked in the top three of most trusted media organisations within their countries (the BBC was first, France Télévisions was second, NHK was first, and KBS was third).

Comparatively, RTHK was ranked 10th out of the 15 Hong Kong media organisations surveyed. Its trust rating was significantly below that of Now TV News (65%), Yahoo! News (57%), and Headline Daily (57%).

By comparing them on this metric of where they stand within their country, this metric instead, it considers each national context, and each country’s broader relationship with trust.

Broader struggles remain for independent media

The situation facing independent media in Hong Kong remains dangerous. On 10 June, another independent news outlet, FactWire, closed down. It followed in the footsteps of Stand News, Citizen News and Apple Daily.

Since their demise, HKFP reported a positive development that “a number of small-scale independent Chinese-language outlets survive to tell the stories of the city.” In some cases, they were established by journalists at the closed down outlets.

But otherwise, there has not been much cause for optimism. Journalists are an “endangered species” Lokman Tsui, a former media progressor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said to VOA. Since the establishment of the National Security Law, the administration under the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has presided over a crackdown of civil liberties which has affected activists, journalists, and even human rights organisations.

While Ms. Lam will be stepping down at the end of this month, the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has outlined its concerns with her replacement, John Lee.

“John Lee has been a key perpetrator of the current campaign against independent journalism in Hong Kong, and we have every reason to fear that he would only amplify the repression during his term as chief executive,” said Cédric Alviani, RSF’s East Asia Bureau.

Meanwhile, there are reports that further legislation in the guise of a ‘fake news’ law could be forthcoming. Such laws have been used in the past under the pretence of stamping out mis- and disinformation but, in reality, provide heavy-handed powers to governments to stop critical reporting.

The Public Media Alliance has long been seriously concerned about the direction of public media and press freedom in Hong Kong. It is disappointing to witness the rapid decline in independent media and a vibrant media landscape. Waning levels of trust in RTHK demonstrate how the actions of the political leadership have affected the integrity of the once well-respected organisation. With the incoming Chief Executive, there are sadly no indications the situation – not just for RTHK but for independent media outlets more broadly – will improve.