More news is bad news for RTHK|Alex Price

Published (HKT): 2021.05.04 09:15

It’s generally not a pretty sight when media organizations become news themselves – and things at RTHK are starting to look ugly indeed.

Last week senior management at the publicly funded broadcaster decided to pull an episode of the current affairs television program Hong Kong Connection. The episode in question focused on the funding of online media – specifically Hong Kong Free Press and Citizen News. The program was intended to examine whether crowdfunding and public subscription was enough to keep the two organizations afloat amid the current economic difficulties.

The production team said the management pulled the program because it might help the two media outlets raise money – and that the decision was made a month after the show had been completed.

This raises some interesting issues, to put it mildly.

First, the logic of the decision. If a program on media organizations is cancelled because it might help them get more money, then where to draw the line? Should a documentary on horse racing be axed because it might encourage people to gamble? Should a report on the financial set-up of Hutchison be dropped because it might affect the wealth of Li Ka-shing? Should a program about the fight against the illegal wildlife trade be pulled because it might encourage people to donate to relevant charities?

It just doesn’t make sense.

Second, the timing of the decision. Senior management would – or should – have known well in advance what issues the program was addressing. Unless the completed show was greatly different from the one originally pitched, the management would have had ample time to stop it before it got off the ground. And even then, why wait a full month after the episode had been produced before taking the decision to drop it?

Again, it just doesn’t make sense. The phrase “self-censorship” springs to mind.

RTHK has been facing a multitude of new challenges in recent times. Pressure from the government over allegations of bias, together with the appointment of a career civil servant with no journalism experience as its head, has taken a toll on staff morale.

As I have written before, I used to work at RTHK and found its news teams to be dedicated, hard-working and committed to giving honest, factual reports. But continued intervention by the authorities risks undermining all these efforts.

Take the case of Bao Choy. Choy was found guilty of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance and fined USD770 after using a government database to search for vehicle license plate information for an earlier Hong Kong Connection program. She was looking for information related to the July 21, 2019 mob attack in Yuen Long MTR station. Her award-winning program showed how police knew gangs of men had gathered with weapons, but failed to prevent the violence or help victims.

There was a huge upswell of public anger against the police following the attacks – attacks which senior officers later tried to characterize as fights between two equally armed and at-fault groups. Which of course is utter nonsense, and an attempt to re-write history.

After searching the database for information on the owners of cars seen carrying suspects in the attack, Choy was arrested and charged – despite such searches being common practice for investigative journalists here for many years.

She had declared that her search was for “other traffic and transport related matters”, after the Transport Department had – with no announcement – removed reporters’ usual option of “other purposes”. The police decided she had made false statements and arrested her.

Given that the information is freely available on the government database, in reality it makes precious little difference which box is ticked. However, once the police decided to charge Choy, the Justice Department was only too happy to go ahead with prosecuting her.

I can’t help thinking that it looks suspiciously like a case of vindictive revenge by the police.

Journalists at RTHK are already under pressure from the authorities and pro-Beijing toadies, and as last week’s apparent self-censorship illustrates, they are, sadly, now coming under even more pressure from their own bosses.

(Alex Price is a journalist who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over 30 years.)

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