Embattled Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK is still free to criticise government, Lam says, provided it is ‘objective, fair’

Tony Cheung
·4-min read

Hong Kong’s leader has said the city’s embattled public broadcaster, home to a recent flurry of staffing and programming changes, can still produce shows critical of her administration – provided it does so in an objective and fair manner.

But Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declined to comment on RTHK’s Monday decision to not renew the contract of journalist Nabela Qoser, known for her confrontational questioning of officials, and to begin deleting shows older than 12 months from its online platforms, including YouTube.

The moves have prompted some to question if the government is trying to rid RTHK of employees and shows deemed too critical of government policy, while crafting a new role for the broadcaster: staunch administration supporter.

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Journalist Nabela Qoser’s contract was not renewed. Photo: RTHK
Journalist Nabela Qoser’s contract was not renewed. Photo: RTHK

Lam rejected that notion at her Tuesday press briefing.

“Nobody has given RTHK a new role. RTHK has been performing the role of a public broadcaster and it should continue to perform that role properly as a public broadcaster which is objective, fair and, of course, supports the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean the RTHK can’t have programmes that also criticise the government, but it has to be done in an objective and fair manner, without bias and prejudice.”

Lam, however, declined to comment specifically on the broadcaster’s latest moves, saying the director of broadcasting was responsible for those internal decisions, and she had no part to play.

“RTHK is both a government department and a public broadcaster … It has to operate under the charter signed between RTHK, the government and the [Communications] Authority,” Lam said.

“How RTHK’s senior management performs on the matters you have mentioned is not a matter for the chief executive, I am sure that the senior management will operate in accordance with the charter, and the mission of RTHK.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes questions ahead of her weekly Executive Council meeting on Tuesday. Photo: Felix Wong
Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes questions ahead of her weekly Executive Council meeting on Tuesday. Photo: Felix Wong

Patrick Li Pak-chuen, a career bureaucrat, replaced veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing as director of broadcasting on March 1. RTHK has since axed at least three shows deemed biased or inaccurate, with some staff members saying they were now self-censoring so their own programmes might avoid the same fate.

The broadcaster has also attempted to pull from awards consideration content created by the previous regime.

Qoser, who previously worked with other media outlets such as TVB and Ming Pao Daily, became known for her rapid-fire, often blunt, questioning of officials over their handling of the city’s anti-government protests in 2019.

While praised by many, her confrontational approach was also denounced as rude and biased by critics, particularly those from the pro-establishment bloc.

Government has made RTHK a place of fear, uncertainty, self-censorship: insider

Lam was also asked on Tuesday whether RTHK’s move to remove its content from online platforms had gone against her 2017 election pledge to implement an archive law that would bring greater transparency to government records.

She said only that authorities were still studying the matter.

Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said while the broadcaster could still criticise the government, it was obvious its ability to do so had been reduced by the raft of recent changes.

He also pointed out that journalists were no longer allowed to use their own professional judgment in determining impartiality, but had to follow a government standard that could differ greatly.

RTHK takes current affairs documentary off air, while popular talk show suspended

Lee also took issue with RTHK’s recent move to remove programmes older than a year from its YouTube channel, which critics feared was aimed at removing controversial content.

Lee said those programmes were produced with taxpayer money and did not cost much to store on the social media channel. “If you can make them accessible, why hide them?” he said.

Separately, the chief executive was asked if she had a timetable in place for enacting a “fake news” law to combat the spread of misinformation, a trend she said had increased during the 2019 protests and the coronavirus pandemic.

Lam said she did not, as much research still needed to be done on how foreign countries handled the matter.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui Ying-wai and RTHK chief Li officiated at a flag-raising ceremony at the broadcaster’s headquarters in Kowloon Tong to mark mainland China’s May Fourth Youth Day.

The uniformed group of youngsters initially failed to raise the Chinese and Hong Kong flags, prompting the live broadcast to be temporarily halted. The two flags were raised eventually with the help of others.

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