Since the passing of the Hong Kong National Security Law in July, Beijing has steadily expanded its control over Hong Kong’s media outlets. In August, Next Digital publisher Jimmy Lai was dramatically arrested on national security charges during a raid of Apple Daily’s offices. Last week, Hong Kong police announced that they would begin to bar from restricted press areas journalists representing outlets not officially recognized by the government. Several other major Hong Kong media organizations have experienced significant changes over the last three months, including attempts to muzzle critical journalists and extend airtime for pro-Beijing politicians.
On Sunday, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), Hong Kong’s public broadcasting service, reported on the re-opening of a concluded investigation into one of their reporters based on complaints made against her a year ago:
The reporter, Nabela Qoser, has also been informed that her three-year probation period as a civil servant will be extended by another 120 days, according to the RTHK Programme Staff Union.
Qoser’s confrontational approach towards Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials at press conferences during the months of anti-government protests was praised by many, but denounced as aggressive and biased by others.
“Where were you all last night?,” she had asked Lam, for example, the day after the Yuen Long gang attack on July 21 which put dozens of people in hospital.
[…] The [RTHK Programme Staff] union questioned why the investigation into Qoser is being reopened after it had been concluded and said it would be seeking information as to who made the decision. It described the move as “unreasonable suppression”.
RTHK's Nabela Qoser – famed for her eloquent Cantonese – tears Carrie Lam to pieces with a stream of questions at Monday's press con: https://t.co/IUx7IsBMXd
— Tom Grundy (@tomgrundy) July 23, 2019
A pro-gov FB group is complaining that @rthk_news reporter Nabela Qoser—famous for her rapid-fire, no-BS, take-no-prisoners approach to questioning authorities—is "out of line," "cocky," & even dares to "question gov officials & police!"
Sounds like a damn good journalist to me pic.twitter.com/6ZF35AcVl0
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) August 8, 2019
RTHK has drawn the ire of pro-Beijing supporters in Hong Kong for their coverage of the Hong Kong protests. They accuse the broadcaster of being sympathetic to protestors’ demands and unfairly critical of the government. In June, at the same time that the government appointed a team to scrutinize RTHK’s management, the broadcaster ended its popular long-running satirical program “Headliner,” analogized by some as Hong Kong’s “Saturday Night Live,” following complaints that it mocked and derided the Hong Kong Police Force.
#BREAKING: #RTHK suspends production of satire TV programme Headliner after regulator gave a warning to broadcaster, ruling that its segment depicting #HongKongPolice was an insult to the force. The Communications Authority said it got 3,300 complaints over the episode on 14Feb pic.twitter.com/Zzrw8Dv3H7
— Damon Pang (@damon_pang) May 19, 2020
The colonial government itself suggested the move in 1989, in the wake of the brutal June 4th crackdown but it was struck down in the face of strong opposition from the Chinese side of the Joint Liaison Group in the early 1990s.
— Yuen Chan (@xinwenxiaojie) September 27, 2020
On Monday, RTHK reported on senior government officials’ attempts to distance themselves from the decision to investigate Qoser:
The Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Edward Yau, whose bureau oversees RTHK, brushed aside suggestions that the government played a role in the controversy, saying it is a “staff matter” that’s completely left in the hands of RTHK.
“I think what you’re talking about is a staff matter within a government department, which under the existing arrangement is a matter for the department to handle because as all government departments, they have their own policies to establish performance, promotion and other staffing matters. This is entirely a matter for the department, so it is inappropriate for me to comment on this,” Yau said. [Source]
But a representative of the broadcaster’s staff union disputed those claims, saying the decision was made by the Civil Service Bureau:
Gladys Chiu, RTHK Programme Staff Union head, met top managers of RTHK this afternoon, and cited deputy director of broadcasting Eugene Fung saying that the extension of journalist Nabela Qoser's probation is based on a memo issued by Civil Service Bureau on 14 Aug… pic.twitter.com/j8vHz0BZ5Y
— Xinqi Su 蘇昕琪 (@XinqiSu) September 28, 2020
Publicly funded news outlets are not the only media organizations facing heightened scrutiny. In August, local freelance reporter Rachel Cheung wrote a long thread on Twitter about significant shake-ups of top management at two of Hong Kong’s biggest cable news providers. From a collated version of the thread:
The police raid at @appledaily_hk, the only pro-democratic paper in #HongKong, on Monday was shocking. But across the town, a major shake-up occurred at the newsroom of broadcast station iCable, which is equally alarming.
There had been rumours that the former news director Fung Tak-hung would soon be let go. The surprise came at his replacement: not one, but three new appointed media executives, all of whom have far less experience in running a newsroom.
[…] The parachute appointments couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time. A similar move occurred at another pay-television network Now TV last month, where three senior staff from pro-establishment broadcast station TVB were appointed to lead the newsroom.
“The purpose is to control the highest authority in the newsroom and leverage that power to influence the direction and agenda of news coverage,” said Allan Au, a media and political commentator in Hong Kong.
[…] Another alarming phenomenon that happens across the industry is journalists leaving in droves because of the poor working environment and low pay. At iCable, average salary for new reporters is around HK$13,000 [$1700USD]. Salary increase each year is no more than several hundred.
At the iCable’s China reporting team, once known for its exclusive stories, eight of 12 members resigned in the last 3 years, many of which have many years of experience. All were replaced with fresh graduates. [Source]
On Saturday, news broke that broadcaster NowTV would no longer have a journalist host its weekly political news program. The host would instead be replaced by Starry Lee, the leader of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party:
Reports say leader of pro-CCP DAB party, Starry Lee, is set to replace a journalist as presenter of a weekly political programme on NOW TV. The station recently replaced its retiring head of news with a retired news manager from TVB. https://t.co/WENq8ExGG1
— Yuen Chan (@xinwenxiaojie) September 26, 2020
In some cases, top government officials have eschewed speaking to journalists altogether. Last week, an interview with Hong Kong police commissioner was conducted by pro-Beijing lawmaker Elizabeth Quat and published directly to her own YouTube channel:
Amazing, pro-Beijing lawmaker who has been the biggest backer of press credentials and shown an extremely limited understanding of the basic functions of the press, role-plays journalist for 15 minutes and "interviews" Hong Kong police commissioner Chris Tang. https://t.co/Ngjpy2HqXN
— Timothy McLaughlin (@TMclaughlin3) September 25, 2020
Taken together, the changes at RTHK, iCable, and NowTV represent a significant strengthening of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong media, and particularly over broadcast news. Alongside Television Broadcasts (TVB)—Hong Kong’s most watched television broadcaster, widely considered to be biased in favor of Beijing—the networks essentially capture the region’s entire TV news audience, presenting an ominous future for press freedom in the city.