People wearing protective face masks walk on a street in the Central, the business district of Hong Kong, Tuesday, Feb. 11,…
FILE - People wearing protective face masks walk on a street in the Central, the business district of Hong Kong, Feb. 11, 2020.

HONG KONG  - Hong Kong's freedom of speech has suffered fresh setbacks after public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong was reprimanded by the government and forced to suspend a satirical show and apologize for allegedly insulting the police.   

The show, Headliner, which first aired in 1989, often poked fun at government officials and more recently, police officers, who have used heavy-handed tactics to deal with sometimes violent protests in the months-long anti-government movements in the semi-autonomous city.  RTHK, the publicly funded, respected broadcaster, has been repeatedly attacked by the pro-China camp for its independent reporting and current affairs programs, which have won many awards over the years.  

People eat lunch near a television broadcasting Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's speech live at a restaurant in Hong Kong, Oct. 16, 2019.

The suspension of the show, seen as a bellwether of Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, and the public censuring of RTHK, has been widely criticized by critics as another move to undermine the city’s civic freedom amid China’s tightening control of Hong Kong.

The government issued RTHK a list of demands late Tuesday, including a full review of its program production and editorial processes, an apology, and disciplinary action against any staff found to have committed mistakes or "negligence."   

A statement from the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB), which oversees the public broadcaster, came after the Communications Authority gave the station a warning for "denigrating and insulting" the police in an episode of the Chinese-language show in February.     

The episode poked fun at the police, including a sketch in which a police uniform-clad presenter jumped out of a garbage bin and joked that while medical staff were facing a shortage of protective equipment amid the coronavirus outbreak, police officers had plenty of gear.  The Communications Authority said the sketch was a "gratuitous attack" on all officers. 

FILE - Riot police disperse anti-government protesters during a rally in a shopping mall in Hong Kong, China.

The bureau said the situation was “very serious” given that RTHK has breached the various provisions in the city’s code of practice on television program standards, including containing content “regarded as hate speech” as well as “denigrating and insulting the police.” 

In response, RTHK said it accepted the Communications Authority’s ruling.  It said the production of the program will be suspended at the end of the current season and a review will be carried out.  It also apologized to police officers and others who have been offended.  It is unclear whether the program will air again.   

On Wednesday, Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Edward Yau said RTHK must also examine its management and governance.   

The warning from the Communications Authority had been RTHK's second in a month, after the station was also accused of breaching the television program code after a guest host in another program gave his views on violent clashes between police and protesters.   

Last month, the bureau also said RTHK had breached the "One China" principle by asking the World Health Organization if it would reconsider Taiwan's membership in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.     

Radio Television Hong Kong, which has also been accused of being too sympathetic towards pro-democracy protesters since Hong Kong's social unrest erupted last June, has long been under pressure to tone down its editorial stance to reflect the Hong Kong and Chinese governments’ position.      

Kong Tsung-gan, a political commentator, said the Chinese authorities are “trying to bring to heel a public broadcaster that’s proven frustratingly independent.”    

“Basically, the signal sent is criticism or satire of police is off-limits in the mainstream Hong Kong press,” he said on Twitter. “If things are to continue in this way, press freedom and freedom of expression will erode rapidly in Hong Kong.”   

“'Headliners' is a part of many Hong Kong people's lives. It would be as if Saturday Night Live or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert suddenly buckled to censorship,” he said.