HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's dominant broadcaster cut a current affairs programme that had satirised the police amid a citywide shortage of protective gear against the coronavirus, prompting fresh warnings about press freedoms in the former British colony.
The broadcaster TVB cut local media outlet RTHK's controversial satire programme Headliner - which had earlier prompted a complaint from Hong Kong's police chief - from its Friday line-up, RTHK said. TVB also dropped RTHK's Legco Review programme, about the city's legislature, from its Thursday slot.
The Communications Authority said this week that local broadcasters with free TV licences no longer have to air RTHK programmes, following a request submitted by TVB on Jan 9.
Headliner had sparked protests from pro-Beijing groups after a Feb 14 episode jokingly implied that cops could more easily get protective gear than other officials, including medical staff. Police Chief Chris Tang said he complained to RTHK and the Communications Authority and expressed regret that the programme "ridiculed" cops.
TVB director Allan Zeman told Bloomberg News by phone on Friday (March 6) that the broadcaster has wanted to drop programmes from RTHK for years, to create space for its own ads and revenue-generating programming.
But critics say TVB is bowing to political pressure as Beijing tries to silence dissent that has fuelled months of often-violent protests in the city against China's grip. Hong Kong media tycoon and prominent democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, long denounced as a traitor by Chinese state media, was among the activists swept up in a wave of arrests in the Asian financial hub last month.
TVB became a target during the months of protests, accused of biased coverage that focused on the costs of the demonstrations and downplayed outrage over the government's extradition Bill, which first sparked the demonstrations, and police aggression in dispersing rallies.
TVB has denied bias and the regulator said the claims were unsubstantiated in its response to 7,400 complaints from the public.
The removal of the satire programme has revived divisions between protesters and supporters of TVB, whose broadcasts reach most Hong Kongers, underscoring concerns that free speech in the city is being eroded.
"TVB can only say things which Beijing likes," said Mr Kalvin Ho, vice-chairman of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, adding that the company should keep airing RTHK shows since that was a condition for getting a free broadcasting licence. "TVB is totally controlled by China."
Pro-democracy groups held demonstrations at the Communication Authority's office and submitted petition letters opposing its decision to let TVB drop the RTHK programming.
Meanwhile, a group of TVB backers, called the Public Broadcaster Concern Group, held a demonstration outside RTHK's offices accusing the station of bias.
Protesters have called for a boycott of TVB and mocked the broadcaster as "CCTV-B", a pun referencing the mainland's state-owned China Central Television.
TVB vice-chairman Li Ruigang is known as the "Rupert Murdoch of China" for his sprawling media empire. His ties to the Communist Party have been raised by critics who say Beijing has sway over the station. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent through his CMC Capital Group.
Mr Li, a former senior Communist Party official in Shanghai, was named chairman of TVB's executive committee last month following the resignation of TVB chairman Charles Chan from the board. Mr Chan stepped down after the group said in December it would cut 350 people, about 10 per cent of staff, on a business downturn.