Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK staffers wear masks of resembling journalist Nabela Qoser during a silent protest against the management's treatment of Qoser outside Broadcasting House, Jan. 28, 2021.
FILE - Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK staffers wear masks resembling journalist Nabela Qoser during a silent protest against the management's treatment of Qoser, known for her tough questioning of officials, outside Broadcasting House, Jan. 28, 2021.

HONG KONG/TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Hong Kong’s government has given employees at public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) until Thursday to decide whether to sign an oath of loyalty to the Chinese special administrative region, VOA has been told. 

Amid political unrest that has rocked the city in recent years, the Civil Service Bureau (CSB) officially announced last month that Hong Kong civil servants were required to declare their allegiance to the government this month.  This includes pledges to uphold the Basic Law, bear allegiance, be dedicated to their duties and be responsible to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

A spokesperson for the RTHK Programme Staff Union, the union that represents RTHK’s broadcasting staff, told VOA the oath-taking is “in conflict with the duties of a public broadcaster” and that it can potentially be a “legal tool to criminalize civil servants expressing criticisms against current policies.”

According to local reports, conduct that does not uphold the Basic Law includes advocating for Hong Kong’s independence, refusing to recognize China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, soliciting intervention by external forces or activities that endanger national security.

The union spokesman admitted RTHK is in a “dilemma” because of the undefined interpretation of the law with the oath raising questions over the future of RTHK’s editorial independence.

“As members of the press, it will be hard to avoid reporting on misconduct, and mishaps of the administration. Even if we are just relaying messages, or relaying opinions of people’s criticism of the administration, it could be a problem,” the spokesman said.

“We are now in a difficult position, but RTHK would still strive to serve the public under the professional standards of journalism,” the spokesman added. 

But several RTHK staff members, who chose to stay anonymous, admitted that because of the pandemic, most people would sign the declaration.

“My guess is 80% will sign, because of financial reasons,” one told VOA, while another employee indicated there were “two people” who would not be signing the oath.

Under the “one country, two systems” agreement signed by Britain and China in 1997, after the city was transferred back to Chinese rule, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would retain a high degree of autonomy until 2047.

Public Broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), will suspend a long-running political satirical television show "Headliner" after it received a government reprimand on insulting the Hong Kong police officers.

But after widespread anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing wanted to make sure such unrest would never happen again. Hong Kong’s national security law was implemented and penalizes anything China considers to be acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces — carrying sentences of up to life in prison.

RTHK has come under continuous pressure from the government in recent years. In March of last year, the government criticized a reporter for going against the “One China” policy after an interview with a World Health Organization (WHO) during which an official was asked whether the organization would reconsider Taiwan’s membership.

In April, the Communications Authority (CA) criticized a television show for being biased against the police, and in May, a well-known satirical show was suspended following further complaints from the government.

Journalists within the government-funded broadcaster also have come under scrutiny. In November, freelance producer Bao Choy was arrested for allegedly violating regulations while using a government database to conduct research for a documentary.

Bao Choy is pictured outside Fanling Magistrates Court after her hearing, Nov. 10, 2020. (Tommy Walker/VOA)
RTHK Arrest in Hong Kong Is Further Blow to Press Freedom
Arrests, chilled climate since National Security Law came into effect may leave Hong Kong media deciding between self-censorship or revealing the truth

And anchor Nabela Qoser has recently had her civil service contract terminated, as investigations continue to review complaints about the journalist’s tough questioning and conduct toward government officials.

One RTHK employee said signing the oath puts employees in jeopardy of having the same “fate” as Qoser.

“If they can treat Nabela [Qoser] in that way, the government can treat us the same way. So many colleagues are worried about that,” the employee said.

Changes within the RTHK are set to continue, with many staff uncertain about the future. The news organization said Patrick Li Pak-chuen will become director of broadcasting on March 1, replacing Leung Ka-wing, whose contract was due to expire in August but is leaving early by mutual consent.

“We expect someone [who is] really pro-China to take charge,” one staff member said.

But the uncertainty of the boundaries of the national security law already has created a nervous atmosphere in the company.

“I am aware people are starting to become silent, not criticizing the SAR government or management as openly as before. We never know who will report you later on,” the employee said.

RTHK recently followed the decision by China’s broadcasting regulator National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) to ban BBC World News.

Beijing claims the BBC has been removed for “seriously violated regulations,” according to state news agency Xinhua. China has previously criticized the BBC over its reporting on COVID-19 and the treatment of ethnic minority Uighurs.

The RTHK Union spokesman said it “could be the first instance that a Hong Kong media outlet follows the decision by the NRTA.”

One staff member understood the decision but admitted concerns about the media's future if Hong Kong continues to follow Beijing’s model.

“I can kind of understand because there is a national security law now. My concerns are quite big if we continue to work under these measures. I think more people will turn away from journalism,” the staff member added.

Beijing’s move concerning the BBC comes after British media regular Ofcom had previously stripped China Global Television Network (CGTN) of its license after an investigation discovered its license holder wasn’t solely responsible for the output of the network.