Since 1928, what has become Radio Television Hong Kong has been considered one of Asia’s most politically independent public broadcasters. But a new head of the broadcasting service is sparking protests from journalists, who say that the appointment is another sign of eroding media freedoms in the Chinese-controlled city-state.
After a nine-month search by the Hong Kong government for a qualified media executive to replace outgoing RTHK boss Franklin Wong, Roy Tang begins his first week as broadcast director of the organization Monday.
But some journalists at the network say the 47-year-old former deputy secretary for labor and welfare is unqualified for the post and are calling for his resignation.
Simon Lee is vice chair of the RTHK program staff union. He argues that the hostility derives from a perception that Tang, who has no experience in broadcast media, is an ill-qualified political appointee.
“As the head of RTHK, this person is in charge of editorial policy," said Lee. "And, for a government official, a career bureaucrat to take over this role means that instead of defending editorial freedom, we very much worry that this new director is going to defend government policy instead.”
Despite being run as a government department, RTHK has a tradition of editorial independence from its political masters.
That independence emerged from the former British colony’s traditions of free speech and a free media, which Beijing agreed to uphold on the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, under the principle of one country-two systems.
However, there is mounting concern that the two-countries system is under threat. Recently the government has shown increasing intolerance of calls for electoral reform and has appeared to crack down on freedom of expression. Last month, journalists and rights activists accused police of bullying reporters and protesters during the state visit of Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
Alan Leong is leader of the Civic Party. He sees Tang’s appointment as the culmination of a series of decisions by the Hong Kong government to curry favor with Beijing.
“Beijing has been seen to be interfering with the affairs of Hong Kong more and more," said Alan. "Cumulatively, I think a strong case is made that the administration is trying to restrict the scope of operation of civil society stakeholders.”
Speaking after his appointment last week, Tang said he was optimistic he could work with his new team and uphold RTHK’s editorial independence.
“I'll be taking an open mind on all aspects of work with RTHK," Tang said. "RTHK enjoys editorial independence. As the chief editor, I believe I have to safeguard this right.”
With RTHK staff now threatening to take industrial action, the first in the organization’s 83-year history, that optimism would seem misplaced.