Officials target Hong Kong public radio
Pro-Beijing forces say that the station, which patterns itself after the BBC, is not respectful enough.
A quiet battle over whether the only free and independent broadcaster on the land mass of China will remain so is intensifying. Over a 77-year span, Hong Kong public radio has dished out a blend of credible news and cultural programming in three languages, served as a link between expatriates and the Hong Kong street, and has gained increasing editorial autonomy and respect in China's most sophisticated city.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet that is exactly what bothers influential pro-Beijing forces who wish media to more fully trumpet government policies. Many of them see Radio Television Hong Kong, or "RTHK" as it is popularly known, as an irritant at best and a damaging critic at worst - allowing a broad range of opinion, including mild satire and programs that may challenge official proposals, all at taxpayer expense.
The basic issue: Will RTHK be cut, restricted, or turned into a cheerleader for government policies? Or will it evolve into a subsidized but separate identity, similar to the BBC or Channel 4 in London?
One distinct difference between the climate of Hong Kong and that of mainland China, is freedom of expression, experts say.
"If our independence is harmed, it affects the overall climate of freedom here," says Francis Moriarty, who heads the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club press freedom committee, and is an RTHK staffer. "If RTHK is doing hard-hitting stories, others have to work hard, too. In a Hong Kong context, we are the canary in the mineshaft. If our independence is under attack, everybody's is under attack."
Last January brought an abrupt announcement that RTHK would be reviewed by a seven-member commission, appointed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang, which will report in September.
The opening page of the commission review suggests that public broadcasting is an "intrusion" into the market. Moreover, only private media figures are involved in the review, making the team something like a "fox guarding the henhouse," as one local journalist put it, since RTHK competes with private stations.
Moreover, despite the fact that salaries and funding have been frozen or cut since the late 1990s - and the station produces more hours of programming for lower cost - RTHK is being audited for the third time in five years, making it one of the most scrutinized agencies in Hong Kong. Emotions are running high in the newsroom, based in Kowloon, over an initial report last week stating that the media outfit has a "culture of noncompliance" with civil service regulations.
To be sure, supporters and critics alike say the station has been a political hot potato for a decade and needs reform. Dominica Siu King Lo, a former director of educational TV, thinks the audit report may force a "rebirth" along the lines of a corporate identity.
"The people who manage RTHK are not journalists, but professional bureaucrats," says Stephen Vines, a well-known media and business figure in the city. "If RTHK was allowed to be a freestanding, publicly supported station run by media professionals, things might improve. The issue isn't neutral. Powerful groups want the station to be a propaganda department."