HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's government said public broadcaster RTHK breached its charter by asking the World Health Organisation (WHO) about Taiwan's membership, a move democracy advocates criticised as a new government effort to muzzle the press.
The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) said Thursday (April 2) that Radio Television Hong Kong's (RTHK) interview with WHO official Bruce Aylward violated the principle that Taiwan belongs to "one China."
A now-viral video of Dr Aylward's awkward exchange with the RTHK presenter put renewed focus on China's efforts to prevent Taiwan from cooperating with the global health agency during the pandemic.
"The secretary holds the view that the presentation in that episode of the aforesaid program has breached the one-China principle and the purposes and mission of RTHK as a public service broadcaster as specified in the charter," the bureau said, referring to Commerce Secretary Edward Yau.
"It is common knowledge that the WHO membership is based on sovereign states. RTHK, as a government department and a public service broadcaster, should have proper understanding of the above without any deviation."
An RTHK spokesperson said the station had reviewed the programme and found no violation of its charter. Taiwan was referred to as "a place" in the episode and no stance was taken, the spokesperson said.
Hong Kong enjoys freedom of the press and other rights guaranteed before the former British colony's return to Chinese rule in 1997, and democratically run Taiwan has been widely debated in the city's media.
The ruling Communist Party holds that Taiwan is part of China and has sought to limit Taipei's participation in international organisations.
The US, on the other hand, has tried to increase support for Taiwan, with President Donald Trump recently signing into law a new act pushing for closer ties.
On Thursday evening, the US State Department said it held a virtual forum earlier this week with high-level Taiwanese and American officials that looked at "expanding Taiwan's participation on the global stage." That included efforts to have the WHO work more closely with Taiwan, and to reinstate Taipei's observer status at the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body.
Hong Kong authorities have increasingly sought to apply Beijing's national security standards against local critics, a concern that underpinned months of often violent anti-government protests last year. The city has successfully ousted lawmakers from the elected legislature and barred candidates from running on the grounds that their views violated laws holding Hong Kong to be an inalienable part of China.
RTHK, which is government funded, has come under scrutiny for its critical coverage and commentary about leader Carrie Lam's administration.
Police Commissioner Chris Tang said in March that he was filing a complaint against the station to the Communications Authority, saying RTHK's satirical show "Headliner" was misleading the public about the work of his officers.
The latest CEDB statement prompted criticism from pro-democracy advocates, such as opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo, who called it "political censorship."
The RTHK interview with Dr Aylward prompted the WHO to defend its approach to Taiwan, saying the two sides were working together on epidemiology training and information sharing.
Taiwan's foreign ministry criticised the statement, arguing that its information sharing with the organisation was one-sided and hampered by political sensitivities.
In the video, Dr Aylward, who helped lead a WHO mission to the first outbreak epicentre of Wuhan, was asked if the organisation would consider giving Taiwan membership. The WHO ended Taipei's observer status at the annual World Health Assembly after Taiwan elected President Tsai Ing-wen, who hails from a pro-independence party, in 2016.
Dr Aylward said he couldn't hear properly, and asked the presenter to skip to the next question. The call was then disconnected. When the presenter resumed the call and asked again, Dr Aylward replied that all areas of China had done well, wishing Hong Kong's efforts luck.
The CEDB said RTHK Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing "should be held responsible" for the broadcaster's actions, without elaborating.
"The secretary has once again urged the director of broadcasting and RTHK to fully abide by the charter and that they must handle all programmes in a professional and vigilant manner as required of them," the CEDB said.