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RTHK Independence Called into Question Over Show Hosted by Hong Kong Leader

A still from the opening sequence of 'Get to Know the Election Committee Subsectors', a program on Radio Television Hong Kong
A still from the opening sequence of 'Get to Know the Election Committee Subsectors', a program on Radio Television Hong Kong

Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) is bound by its charter to be editorially independent and immune from political influence.

But a new series, in which Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam interviews political leaders about reforms, is being criticized as testing the limits of that independence.

Chief Executive Lam presented the first of the programs, "Get to Know the Election Committee Subsectors," on April 28. In the series, she discusses political reforms for Hong Kong that have been widely viewed as controversial.

Journalists and experts have said it "falls into the realms" of a propaganda campaign.

RTHK insiders told VOA that the Hong Kong government's Information Services Department commissioned the production, with episodes to be shown on RTHK channels. Episodes uploaded to YouTube include a line in Chinese at the end saying it was produced by the regional government, media reported.

At least two RTHK members whom VOA spoke with described the TV segments on the government-funded broadcaster as "one-sided" and "like propaganda."

Focus on new reforms

The show focuses on a major revamp to Hong Kong's political system that Beijing approved in March. The reforms will bring a reduction in directly elected seats; an increase in pro-Beijing voices to the city's mini-parliament, the Legislative Council; and a stricter vetting process by a special committee for potential candidates. The latter is viewed by critics as an effort to shut out the opposition and "redefine" democracy.

One senior staff member within RTHK, who asked for anonymity out of concern for reprisal, told VOA that the "editorial independence is really at stake" at the public broadcaster, despite the protections listed in The Charter of Radio Television Hong Kong.

"What would breach the charter is the obvious, a biased view of the reformed Legislative Council election plan … because apart from making herself the only host of the program, what is more problematic is that she only invited people who unanimously praised the whole review as something positive," the staffer said.

"She never acknowledged anything against, for example, criticisms with the decrease in democratic elements of the proposal, and also how what should have been a broad election of people of equal opportunity is less and less possible under the new scheme," the staff member said.

A spokesperson for the broadcaster was cited in reports saying that the show is in line with the charter's mandate to promote a sense of citizenship and national identity.

Local media have reported that 40 episodes will be broadcast in total, with two segments aired each day.

So far, Lam has interviewed pro-establishment political figures discussing the recent political reforms, the RTHK staffer said.

"I think at least in the whole series, you have to present all those voices in the society. But what we've heard (so far), is one-sided," they added.

Lam has responded to wider criticisms and concerns, saying on RTHK that the station has no new role and is still a public broadcaster. She added that it should continue to be "objective, fair and of course support the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" (SAR).

On her Facebook page, she said the show will include "guests from different sectors" to "help us to better understand the purpose of improving the SAR electoral system and the representation of individual Election Committee subsectors."

Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Lam's show "is not an entirely new phenomenon" globally.

"Leaders who do not want their views publicly challenged have sought to cut out the press as the middleman to get their message across," Mahoney said via email. "It is a way of bypassing accountability and undermining a vital function of an independent press in a democracy, namely the right to ask questions of officials and leaders and hold them to account on behalf of the public."

The announcement of Lam's new program has epitomized a radical shift in RTHK's broadcasting output in recent months. It comes after Hong Kong government officials appointed RTHK's new director of broadcasting, Patrick Li, in February.

Li, a career administrative officer with no prior media experience, has since axed at least 10 shows after raising concerns over what he deemed partiality.

Eric Wishart, a journalism lecturer and press freedom co-convener at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club, told VOA, "(They canceled) programs because they say they're partial, not balanced, and then Carrie Lam goes on, hosts a show to promote the electoral reforms in Hong Kong. At first glance, I would question the independence of that particular programming."

VOA reached out to the new broadcasting director Li via email for comment but did not receive a response.

One freelance journalist, who works at RTHK and asked for anonymity to avoid causing harm or reprisal to their colleagues, told VOA they decided to quit the broadcaster after a project they had worked on was canceled.

"I think there is no more room for investigative reporting," the journalist said.

'A removal of history'

The broadcaster has also deleted from social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook thousands of posts containing RTHK's archived footage. RTHK says it is removing content older than 12 months.

"It's a removal of history. Some of our colleagues even compare it to burning entries in a library," the RTHK senior staff member said.

RTHK launched its first radio broadcast in 1928 under the British Hong Kong Government but soon became an independent entity. By the 1990s, RTHK was producing web, television and radio content.

But with waves of political unrest in the city since 2019, RTHK has been in the spotlight. Several shows have been suspended because of government criticism.

Media have reported how an interview with now self-exiled activist Nathan Law was removed from the RTHK website following reports that Law was wanted for questioning by the Hong Kong authorities.

RTHK radio channels have recently begun playing China's national anthem, March of the Volunteers, daily on RTHK radio channels, a move widely viewed as an effort to promote "patriotism" in the city.

The broadcaster also followed mainland China's decision to stop relaying BBC World Service radio broadcasts.

And earlier this month, RTHK said it would not renew the contract of Nabela Qoser. The journalist was under investigation following complaints over her confrontational questioning of Lam during the height of the anti-government protests in 2019.