Hong Kong’s public broadcaster denounces censorship after one of its satirical programmes was pulled at the last minute to be replaced by the Chinese President’s speech.

On Friday 30 June at 6pm, Radio Television Hong Kong’s (RTHK) satirical programme Headliner was about to be broadcast on the free-to-air television Television Broadcast Limited (TVB). But only 8 minutes before going to air, RTHK was informed that viewers would see  President’s Xi Jinping’s speech instead, followed by a programme on feng shui.

TVB justified its last minute decision, arguing that the president’s speech, made during a visit to Hong Kong, was ‘breaking news’ and worthy of the audience’s prompt attention. However, the segment showed that evening was only a recording of footage shot earlier in the day and already aired by other news stations. TVB eventually ran the episode of Headliner but in the early hours.

Headliner is not an ordinary entertainment programme but a satirical show, political in many aspects and often critical of the government. That particular episode reportedly contained sarcastic comments about the President and referred to the Nobel Peace Prize winner and dissident Liu Xiaobo. Since the action TVB has faced a wave of criticism, from RTKH and other media critics, accusing the broadcaster of self-censorship.

“The decision was blatant political self-censorship and a backward step for press freedom,” said Ted Hui Chi-fung, of the Democratic Party.

Amen Ng Man-yee, from the Communications Department at RTHK, said that the move was “unusual and unacceptable”, especially as it came with such short notice and ignored the current agreements between the two broadcasters.

The protocol agreed by the two broadcasters under the Communications Authority (CA) in fact establishes that TVB must air RTHK programmes 30 minutes per day from Monday to Friday, or broadcast 2.5 hours during evenings. Any changes in schedules and logistics should be discussed with adequate notice before any decisions to reschedule programmes are made.

“According to usual practice, TVB would discuss rescheduling of programmes with RTHK one day to one week prior to the broadcast date,” she said to Public Media Alliance. “Besides that, even if there is some breaking news, TVB would broadcast RTHK programmes right after the breaking news, but not yanking out of the programmes”.

RTHK has filed an official complaint to the CA against TVB, and it is not alone in its criticism of the TVB action. So far, the CA has received more than 190 complaints from viewers.

TVB has however defended its stance and hit back at RTHK’s accusations.

“It would be ignorant of the facts if Ng did not consider the President’s speech news or thought it was of less importance than Headliner,” wrote the broadcaster.“It was an inappropriate statement by a professional news practitioner or broadcaster”.

TVB also said RTHK should stop using the high- rating time slot of commercial TV stations for free just to repeat their programs, influencing viewer’s choices, and asked for the “outdated agreement” to be called off.

“This also adversely affects the commercial TV stations in its programming and scheduling flexibility. The outdated arrangement should cease at the soonest,” TVB continued.

However, the CA has no plans to change the agreement and is currently conducting an investigation on the complaints which might take up to two months.

Header image: RTHK Headquarters. Credits: courtesy of RTHK.