Timeline: Two Months of Turmoil at Hong Kong Public Broadcaster RTHK

Over the weekend, the embattled Hong Kong public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) announced that it would begin deleting its own programming from the , including all content over a year old. It is a chilling move by the broadcaster, which has been embroiled in turmoil following a change of management with the appointment of civil servant Patrick Li as its Director of Broadcasting in February. On Monday, the broadcaster also formally fired Nabela Qoser, an outspoken RTHK journalist who gained widespread recognition during the 2019-2020 protests for her hard hitting questioning of public officials.

The alarming announcements over the weekend are just two episodes in a months-long saga at RTHK, which has seen the resignation of a slew of senior producers, the axing by Patrick Li of programming for lacking political “neutrality,” and the addition of a daily talk show hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Observers fear that RTHK, originally constructed in the image of the BBC as an editorially independent public broadcaster and ranked most trusted media brand in Hong Kong in 2019, will gradually be remolded into something more closely resembling mainland China’s CCTV.

RTHK’s transformation and censorship is a case study in the muzzling of once venerated institutions in post-National Security Law Hong Kong. Following is a timeline of the transformation of RTHK so far.

  • The Hong Kong government accuses RTHK of violating the “One China Principle” after one of its reporters asks a World Health Organization official about Taiwan’s representation at the WHO. In a clip that went viral on social , WHO assistant director general Bruce Aylward hangs up on reporter Yvonne Tong after she presses him about whether the WHO will grant Taiwan membership.
  • After the Communications Authority rules that RTHK’s satirical program “Headliner” “denigrated and insulted” the police, RTHK cancels the program. South China Morning Post’s Brian Wong and Zoe Low report:

    Commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah has called for a strict review of content production procedures and internal governance at controversy-plagued Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK, which on Tuesday was ruled to have “denigrated and insulted” the police force.

    […] It was the first comment from a government official since Tuesday’s Communications Authority verdict, which ruled that a February 14 episode of the political satire programme Headliner had promoted “insult and prejudice” by portraying police as trash and suggesting they had hoarded masks and other personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.

    RTHK made a public apology afterwards, and said the show would be suspended and subject to a review when its current season ended on June 19. [Source]

  • The Hong Kong government announces a comprehensive review into the management of RTHK, to be led by a team of current and retired civil servants.
  • Despite an earlier investigation clearing her of wrongdoing, RTHK reopens an investigation into Nabela Qoser’s professional conduct amid persistent complaints from pro-government figures.
  • Hong Kong police arrest RTHK freelance producer Bao Choy, who helped to produce an award-winning documentary episode on the July 21 subway mob attack in Hong Kong. RTHK suspends her indefinitely and refuses to cover her legal fees:

    A decorated Hong Kong reporter who produced an investigative documentary on the July 21, 2019 subway mob attack was arrested by police on Tuesday. The journalist, Choy Yuk-ling, who also goes by Bao Choy, was arrested for allegedly making “false statements” while accessing public records to conduct a vehicle license plate search. Choy was working with Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which has come under intense government scrutiny this year for its and entertainment coverage.

    Choy was heavily involved in producing an award-winning RTHK documentary episode that aired in July, on the one-year anniversary of the attack. Titled “Who Owns the Truth?” the episode won international awards for investigative reporting. [Source]

  • RTHK journalist Nabela Qoser, famed for her hard-hitting questioning of public officials, has her civil servant contract terminated by RTHK management pending an internal investigation into her professional conduct. Qoser is offered a short, 120-day contract with RTHK instead.
  • RTHK follows Beijing’s ban on BBC World News broadcasts in China by cancelling its radio relaying of the BBC World Service. From CDT:

    On Thursday, China’s National Radio and Television Administration announced a ban on BBC World News broadcasts in China, which were already mainly limited to venues such as hotels. Xinhua reported that the BBC had “seriously violated […] in its China-related reports, which went against the requirements that news reporting must be true and impartial, and undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity.” Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK will also reportedly stop relaying BBC content. The revocation last week of Chinese state broadcaster CGTN’s UK license is another likely factor behind the ban; the Alliance for Securing Democracy noted on Twitter on Thursday that it had recently observed sharp official rhetoric on both topics. [Source]

  • The government team appointed to review RTHK’s management produces a 154-page government report finding “serious inadequacies” and “deficiencies in the editorial management mechanism.” RTHK editor-in-chief Leung Ka-wing, a veteran broadcaster who defended the outlet from escalating criticism from pro-Beijing figures, steps down half a year before his contract expires. His replacement is Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Li Pak-chuen, a civil servant with no previous media experience.
  • Patrick Li begins his term, as it is reported that three senior RTHK employees have resigned in the space of two weeks.
  • Patrick Li orders that all programs must be reviewed by him personally, a move unprecedented in the broadcaster’s history. Apple Daily reports:

    “If you can’t pass my impartiality test, your program can’t go on air,” [Patrick Li,] the former Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs said during the editorial meeting, according to a source that spoke to on condition of anonymity.

    There has never been a director of broadcasting who would make such an order, the source added.

    Li’s order came on the fourth day he took charge of RTHK, replacing veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing who resigned as the director of broadcasting last month after six years in the job. [Source]

  • Patrick Li orders an episode of “Hong Kong Stories” be axed. Hong Kong Free Press reports that the episode, featuring a writer talking about oceans and whales, was reportedly removed because the writer shared her sentiments about the 2019 protests.
  • Patrick Li confirms his role in cancelling three RTHK programs to date, vowing to take a “visible” management approach. Even pro-Beijing lawmakers express dissatisfaction with the unpredictable removal of scheduled programming. South China Morning Post’s Ng Kang-chung reports:

    In question were two episodes of the cultural series Hong Kong Stories. Li was reportedly unhappy that the programme had invited hip hop band LMF – whose songs often contain swear words and are critical of the government – for an interview. Another episode featured interviews that touched on the police force’s handling of the 2019 anti-government protests and on social issues such as mask shortages during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

    He was also said to have ordered the plug be pulled on last week’s episode of current affairs show Legco Review, which would reportedly have featured guests discussing electoral changes imposed by Beijing.

    At Monday’s panel meeting, Felix Chung Kwok-pan of the Liberal Party said: “It would be a disrespect to the guests if the programme ends up being cancelled. Was it because the comments they made were not acceptable? Or did it not have anything to do with [them]? The guests deserve to know why the programme was not screened.” [Source]

  • RTHK management delay the airing of a documentary about online media outlets funded using public donations. The completed episode featured interviews with Hong Kong Free Press and Citizen News, two outlets with reputations for being pro-democracy leaning. Management demands that the producers interview pro-Beijing media outlets, but producers reportedly reject the demand, saying no pro-Beijing outlets rely on public donations to operate. On March 23, management accuses the producers of “defying orders.”
  • Without explanation, RTHK removes an episode of “Hong Kong Connection” centered on the issue of university student unions. It is the ninth time that an episode is canceled by RTHK management. RTHK’s English news division reports:

    Another RTHK television programme has been pulled from the schedule at the last minute, with no word from the station’s management as to why the decision was taken.

    The latest show to be dropped is an episode of the documentary series Hong Kong Connection which centred on issues facing university student unions. It had been due to be broadcast on Monday evening.

    […] A programme synopsis that was later deleted from RTHK’s website said the show featured interviews with the two student union cabinets, CUHK council member and pro-government lawmaker Lau Kwok-fan, and another pro-establishment legislator, Eunice Yung. [Source]

    On the same day, RTHK cancels “RTHK Talk Show”, a program focused on history, literature, science, and philosophy, pending “management review.” The government Communications Authority also finds RTHK in breach of its code of practice for reportedly implying that Taiwan is a country. South China Morning Post’s Chris Lau and Emily Tsang report:

    [The Communications Authority, the city’s broadcasting watchdog] noted the episode of Taiwan Story 3 used terms such as “breaking off diplomatic relations” to describe the cutting of ties between the self-ruled island and Burkina Faso, a West African country, and the Republic of Malawi in southeastern Africa.

    “The use of the terms … suggested that Taiwan was a sovereign state capable of establishing formal diplomatic relations, and was inaccurate,” the authority wrote. It advised the broadcaster to observe the code more closely in the future. [Source]

  • RTHK management attempts to withdraw its entries into the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) Awards and the Human Rights Press Awards, citing its “intellectual property rights.” The organizers reject RTHK’s requests to withdraw.
  • South China Morning Post’s Cannix Yau reports that insiders describe RTHK as having become “a place of fear, uncertainty, and self-censorship”:

    “Many staff, especially those with the current affairs division, describe themselves as living in white terror,” the source said. “Many have exercised self-censorship in the hope of getting the go-ahead for their planned programmes. Some staff may avoid interviewing controversial or pro-democracy figures from now on.” [Source]

  • RTHK management confirms it has begun requiring that employees foot the bill if management decides to pull their content from the air. Apple Daily reports:

    Officers would see up to half of their monthly salaries, pensions or other remuneration deducted to cover the costs if their programs failed to get past senior management for containing “unauthorized” information, the RTHK said on Tuesday in a reply to Apple Daily’s inquiry. [Source]

  • RTHK journalist Yvonne Tong, who famously challenged WHO assistant director Bruce Aylward about Taiwan’s status with the organization, is reported to have resigned, following months of targeted harassment from pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong.
  • More government bureaucrats with no media experience are appointed to senior management positions at RTHK, including retired director of administration Kitty Choi and former assistant secretary for labour and welfare Freda Cheung. Their appointments come while top management freezes other hires and promotions, as staff journalists decry “tremendous manpower pressure.” South China Morning Post’s Cannix Yau reports:

    One staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned whether it was a good idea to bring more civil servants into RTHK’s leadership.

    […] “I’m not sure why the government wants to appoint more bureaucrats to RTHK, when it appears the top management is already dominated by administrative officers,” the employee said, noting that both the director and his deputy were civil servants. “Not sure if it’s good for RTHK’s development to have outsiders leading the professionals.”

    […] The broadcaster said that in the first three months of the year, a total of 11 staff had resigned. One source said that since Li’s arrival, at least five senior staff members from the current affairs division had also quit.

    […] RTHK insiders have told the Post that staff were being driven to self-censor to keep their programmes from being axed, while many employees, especially those running current affairs shows, were living in fear of being targeted by those in charge. [Source]

  • RTHK wins an award from the Hong Kong Journalists Association for its documentary episode “7.21 Who Owns The Truth”, co-produced by Bao Choy. RTHK management refuses to accept the award.
  • Bao Choy is found guilty and fined for violating the Road Traffic Ordinance in looking up a vehicle license plate as part of her work on RTHK’s investigative documentary into the 7.21 subway attack. With the verdict in the trial of that night’s attackers still pending, Choy becomes the first and only person to be convicted in connection with the 7.21 incident. CNN’s Eric Cheung reports on her conviction:

    Prosecutors said the ordinance should only be used for “transport-related matters” — and not in the course of reporting.

    Magistrate Ivy Chui agreed, saying Choy’s use of the database was not in line with what vehicle owners expected when they submitted their to the Transport Department. She said the government should not give out personal details of vehicle owners to users who do not use the information within the scope of what is permitted.

    “Reporting and newsgathering is not connected to traffic and transport related matters,” Chui said. “It is obvious that the applicant has used the information from the Transport Department for reporting purposes.” [Source]

  • RTHK announces a new show to be hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The show features Lam talking to city elites appointed to the Election Committee, in charge of choosing the Chief Executive and a portion of the legislature under Hong Kong’s overhauled election system. RTHK’s English news team reported on the announcement of the new show:

    Yet another change to RTHK’s television offerings is in the works, the latest schedules reveal – but rather than a programme being dropped this time, new talent has been signed up in the form of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

    […] RTHK said there will be 40 episodes in total, with two new ones aired each day. Each episode is 12 minutes long and they’ll be repeated three times, with the series coming to an end on May 17.

    […] RTHK’s TV schedules have been somewhat in a state of flux in recent weeks, with programmes repeatedly pulled at the last minute by the new director of broadcasting, Patrick Li.

    The station pointed to concerns about the “impartiality” of the shows in question, with management implementing a new review system for the station’s output to check for any bias or inaccuracies.

    It wasn’t clear whether Li has reviewed Lam’s programmes. [Source]

    On the same day, it is reported that assistant director and 30-year RTHK veteran Brian Chow has resigned, becoming the sixth senior employee to quit the broadcaster since Patrick Li took charge.

  • RTHK management axes a documentary about online media outlets funded using public donations. The completed episode featured interviews with Hong Kong Free Press and Citizen News. Management said the episode had a “conflict of interest” and that airing the episode would encourage viewers to donate to the media outlets. Hong Kong Free Press reported that RTHK management informed producers that the episode was “killed,” adding there were “no reasons.”
  • RTHK begins deleting all of its own shows from Facebook and YouTube older than one year from the date they first aired, including several award winning and extremely popular episodes that have millions of views. Hong Kong Free Press’ Selina Cheng reports:

    Content began disappearing on Monday afternoon.

    The news has led to concern that the bulk of RTHK‘s archival content — which, for years, has been freely accessible on the two platforms — will no longer be viewable, including episodes that reported on Hong Kong’s political turmoil since the 2019 protests, and the national security law.

    With its first video uploaded in October 2007, RTHK‘s YouTube channel is now home to over 17,200 videos, 46 of which have garnered over one million views since they were uploaded. [Source]

    Netizens in Hong Kong reportedly scramble to download and archive RTHK’s content before it was purged over the weekend. RTHK’s English news team report:

    Hong Kong people rushed to save copies of RTHK programmes on Monday as the station began removing shows from the internet, with a journalism academic warning that the broadcaster’s move will allow the authorities to create their own version of history.

    […] Bruce Lui, a journalism lecturer at Baptist University said RTHK may well be the owner of the programmes, but removing them from the internet is against the public interest and is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

    “News is the first draft of history and also the public can look at it afterwards and learn what happened in the past. If we delete those records, it’s sort of clearing the history so that the public won’t have a very good picture of what happened,” he said. [Source]

    On the same day, Nabela Qoser is fired after RTHK refuses to renew her 120-day contract.

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