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Hong Kong government to rein in public broadcaster RTHK

New editorial recommendations raise concerns over city's media freedom

RTHK staff last month protested management's move to terminate the contract of a reporter known for her tough questioning of government officials.   © AP

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK is set for an overhaul after a government report slammed the media outlet for "serious inadequacies" over its editorial management and handling of complaints.

In a 154-page report released on Friday, a government-led committee said RTHK has "weak editorial accountability," as editorial decisions are principally made by production units based on their own judgment, leaving senior management in a "passive" position. The broadcaster was also criticized for a "lack of transparency" in handling public complaints.

The station will be required to map out a timetable to "improve" its operations in accordance with the report's recommendations.

Founded in 1928 during British colonial rule, the public broadcaster has long been rated in surveys by the Chinese University of Hong Kong as one of the city's most trusted news sources. Unlike public broadcasters such as the U.K.'s BBC and Japan's NHK which are primarily funded by license fees, RTHK is directly supported by government funding.

RTHK began coming under intense criticism following its coverage of anti-government protests in 2019, with pro-Beijing supporters claiming the station was "biased" and "taking the side of protesters." It also has broadcast several investigative reports over the past two years related to police handling of the protests and other sensitive topics.

In November, Hong Kong police arrested prizewinning journalist Bao Choy Yuk-ling for allegedly making a false statement to obtain automobile license information from a public database as part of her reporting on the police's delayed response to a mob attack on pro-democracy protesters in 2019.

In an unprecedented move, the government last year launched a six-month review of RTHK's governance and management.

Shortly before the review was published on Friday, veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing stepped down as RTHK's chief six months before the end of his contract. The government named Patrick Li Pak-chuen, a longtime civil servant with no journalistic experience, as his replacement.

Elizabeth Quat, a lawmaker with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city's biggest pro-government party, said the report revealed how "unruly" RTHK had become and told reporters she hopes Li can "set things right" by enhancing editorial supervision.

"RTHK always has been a thorn in the eye of the authorities," said Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University's Department of Journalism. "Beijing and its supporters have argued that a public broadcaster funded by the government should cheer for the government, not embarrass it."

Lui said the new official guidelines will undermine RTHK's editorial independence as they are bound to limit flexibility for journalists. "It will make RTHK more like state-run news agencies in mainland China, where only good news will be reported."

However, government officials maintain that RTHK's editorial autonomy will not be weakened.

"There will never be editorial autonomy without responsibility, freedom without restraint," Edward Yau, who heads the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau which oversees the station, said at a news conference where the report was released.

"So, it is part and parcel of the entire management's duty for RTHK to exercise every right they have within the autonomy given to them," he said. "But at the same time, they also need to fulfill the responsibility laid out in their own guidelines."

RTHK last week ended its longtime rebroadcasting of BBC News programming on its airwaves after China banned the BBC World News channel in the country, highlighting Beijing's tightening control over the former British colony's media.

The RTHK Programme Staff Union said the government is attempting to "replace the broadcaster's professionalism with bureaucracy."

"How can we deliver breaking news quickly and accurately if we have to consult senior management every time?" said Chairwoman Gladys Chiu, adding that many employees have expressed concerns over whether they can still independently report on contentious issues.

Lui of Hong Kong Baptist University noted, "As an international city, the Hong Kong government should embrace both supportive and critical voices... If checks and balances in the society are lost, Hong Kong cannot prosper in the long run."

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