Venerated HK broadcaster seen turning into official mouthpiece

Under new govt-appointed head, it has cut current affairs programmes, among others

HONG KONG • Not long after Mr Patrick Li took over as the government-appointed director of Hong Kong's public broadcaster, a digital lock pad appeared outside his office entrance.

In the past, the director's office had been where staff members at the broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), gathered to air grievances with management decisions: programming changes, labour disputes. Now, the lock pad signalled, such complaints were no longer welcome.

For many employees, the closed room was an emblem of the broader transformation sweeping through RTHK, the 93-year-old institution venerated by residents as one of the most trusted news sources in Hong Kong's once freewheeling media landscape.

RTHK was once compared to the BBC for its fierce editorial independence. But under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed last year to silence dissent, many say it now more closely resembles China Central Television, the Chinese state broadcaster.

Since Mr Li arrived in March, episodes featuring interviews with government critics have been dropped hours before they were to air. Historical dramas about the Communist Party of China fill prime-time slots. Whole shows have been eliminated - with hosts told this would be their last taping only after they recorded it.

New editorial guidelines issued in September order staff members to "assist in the promotion" of the government's work "on safeguarding national security". They are also to "be cautious in contacts" with foreign governments and "political organisations".

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has praised Mr Li for doing "exactly what I expect from a chief editor". Soon afterwards, Mrs Lam announced that she had been given her own RTHK talk show.

RTHK, which doggedly investigated official misconduct during anti-government protests in 2019, was long expected to come under pressure. Under the security law - imposed to quell the protests - officials have dismantled Hong Kong's civil society and attacked media outlets deemed unfriendly.

Still, a dozen current and former staff members, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were astonished by the speed and boldness of the changes - not least because of the broadcaster's history of fending off incursions on its independence.

"In the past, there were a lot of checks and balances," said Mr Tsang Chi-Ho, who co-hosted a long-running satire show and radio programme before his firing this summer. Now, "if they cut a programme, what can you do? There's no legislator to oppose it, no newspaper to say that's wrong. No one can protest on the streets. Their goal is to tell everyone: Just forget the RTHK of the past".

RTHK declined to make Mr Li available for an interview. In a statement, the broadcaster said it would not comment on internal matters but that changes had been made in RTHK's programming because it had become "a cause of public concern". The statement said: "RTHK is a public service broadcaster but not a spokesman of the government. RTHK aspires to be the most credible source of news and public information for the Hong Kong community."

Six shows have stopped airing since Mr Li took over, ranging from a weekly roundtable for social scientists to a nightly travel and leisure programme that made way for mainland dramas.

One discontinued show was The Pulse, a current affairs programme that went viral after a World Health Organisation official was asked in an interview whether Taiwan should be a member. China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, has shut it out of the body.

When taping the final episode of The Pulse this summer, the host, Mr Steve Vines, signed off saying: "In these uncertain times, who knows what will happen in the future. But for now, goodbye and good luck." That part was cut before the show's airing.

Meanwhile, shows still running are unrecognisable to those who made them.

During Ms Fanny Kwan's 13 years producing the news programme Hong Kong Connection, she steadily turned out episodes, interviewing exiled Chinese dissidents and parents of autistic children. But when Mr Li arrived, the new editorial committee vetoed a story, about student activists, she had been filming for weeks. Two other episodes by her colleagues were also scrapped.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 14, 2021, with the headline 'Venerated HK broadcaster seen turning into official mouthpiece'. Subscribe