New guidelines by Hong Kong’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) issued to its staff on Wednesday codify its editorial stance to support the National Security Law. The guidelines are the latest development in the razing of Hong Kong’s media landscape and the mutation of RTHK from investigative watchdog to neutered lapdog. Jeffie Lam and Denise Tsang from the South China Morning Post reported on the document’s warning to RTHK staff:
RTHK issued a detailed set of guidelines on Wednesday requiring staff to uphold “the constitutional order” of the city and China’s sovereignty, following allegations of “biased” news coverage stemming from the anti-government protests of 2019 that have sparked wars of words with officials and cancellations or revamps of several programmes.
The 105-page, wide-ranging document gave prominence to the national security law that Beijing imposed on the city last year, reminding RTHK producers and journalists to “implement” the directions given by the government in safeguarding security. They were also urged to be cautious in contacts with foreign governments and bodies as well as political or “illegal” organisations.
Failure to comply with the new set of guidelines would lead to disciplinary action, the broadcaster’s management warned, without spelling out what that meant. [Source]
1/ RTHK has told its staff to avoid contact with foreign governments or political organisations under new editorial guidelines, as the public broadcaster pledges to prevent acts that endanger national security. https://t.co/Hgfc5evjp1
— Tom Grundy (@tomgrundy) September 29, 2021
Echoing similar wording in recent government guidelines on film censorship and charities, RTHK’s guidelines also used the more expansive phrase “contrary to the interests of national security,” in addition to merely “endangering national security,” when delineating what would constitute a violation.
RTHK: “Under no circumstances should our programmes provide a platform to encourage, incite, promote, glorify, endorse or sympathise with any act or activity endangering national security or otherwise contain any contents which are contrary to the interests of national security.” https://t.co/wePzhIqeCo
— Antony Dapiran (@antd) September 29, 2021
In ordering RTHK staff to adhere to “the interests of national security” and China’s “national interests,” the guidelines imply that reporting should adopt the Chinese state’s interpretation of sensitive topics. As one staff member told Reuters, “I’m not sure that I will be able to produce any more programmes that aren’t directly in line with the government’s stance.” For example, citizens who challenge the state are now to be portrayed not as opposition protesters but as criminals. RTHK’s own coverage of the guidelines summarized this shrinking room for editorial neutrality:
It says while public interest is the basis of RTHK’s work, the station should also take into consideration national interest, which is “an essential part of public interest”.
It says the station must identify itself with national interests in programmes on mainland affairs and Taiwan.
There are updated guidelines on reporting crime. Staff members are told to never portray criminals as victims and make sure criminal acts are not sympathised, justified or glamorised, adding that RTHK’s programmes must not instigate the public to participate in acts against the law.
They are told to be cautious when reporting or producing programmes involving people who are suspected of breaching the national security law. [Source]
Another alarming change to editorial protocol is the document’s mandatory referrals section, indicating when staff must seek permission from higher-level managers for permission to report on certain topics. Much of what was once the purview of individual staff members must now be approved by management:
5.28 The following matters must be referred to PPO (e.g. Chief Assignment Editor) or above or discussed in advance at editorial or senior staff meetings:
(a) broadcasting any interviews with criminals and people sought by police
(b) any proposal to grant anonymity to anyone trying to evade the law;
(c) payment to criminals or former criminals;
(d) broadcasting any surreptitious recording originally made for note-taking purposes;
(e) disclosing details of kidnapping or serious crimes which have been obtained surreptitiously or unofficially;
(f) requests from outside parties to see or obtain untransmitted recorded material; and
(g) commissioning of opinion polls on any political issue. [Source]
Even in the week leading up to the guidelines’ release, RTHK’s editorial position underwent subtle changes that foreshadowed the broadcaster’s future under the new guidelines. On Monday, RTHK published an article with positive coverage of a white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office. The article was copied almost word-for-word from a Xinhua article, without proper attribution; RTHK normally gives attribution when publishing articles from AFP. In addition, as the Hong Kong Free Press reported, “Three recent stories relating to the Tiananmen Massacre, and the commemorative groups and activities in Hong Kong, failed to mention there was a bloody crackdown. Rather, one of them referred to simply the ‘ending’ of the 1989 protests.”
Interesting phrasing in the lede of this RTHK story about the future of June 4 vigils in HK: “commemorate the ending of the student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989”. https://t.co/lWKioCGzKf
— Alice Woodhouse (@alicemuwu) September 27, 2021
In May, CDT published a timeline chronicling “two months of turmoil” at RTHK. The turmoil continued right up until the ominous developments of this week. In June, several RTHK radio and television programs were suddenly axed. At the beginning of August, RTHK wiped clean its Twitter account, which had become known for its often sardonic tone on developments in the city. The account started afresh with replies disabled.
RTHK English News is disabling comments for all future tweets as resource constraints prevent us from properly engaging with our subscribers or refute in a timely manner any misinformation that might be contained within comments.
— RTHK English News (@rthk_enews) August 4, 2021
Those ever helpful folks at @rthk_enews' press office have replied with the following when we asked them why they had purged their entire back catalogue of tweets.
"RTHK's social media policy is the internal matters of RTHK. RTHK has nothing further to supplement."
— Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) August 5, 2021
"It also reminds staff members to act responsibly on social media to protect the station’s integrity and reputation and declare possible conflicts of interest."
— bc Yume 📷 (@BakaChocolate) September 29, 2021
Days later, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the broadcaster would air more content from mainland state media in order to “nurture a stronger sense of patriotism.” This deepened fears that, as Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairperson Ronson Chan put it, “RTHK will become state media as soon as possible.” Chan questioned, though, whether “this will be effective propaganda for the Beijing authorities or just a means of HKSAR government to show their loyalty to Beijing. I think it’s the latter one.”
Also in August, regulators upheld a complaint against RTHK for implying that Taiwan is a country in a news report that referred to “1,800 polling stations nationwide.” The Communications Authority ruled: “It is a fact that Taiwan is not a country and hence the use of the term nationwide in the remark is inaccurate.” On July 20, RTHK staff received a memo introducing new rules on references to Taiwan, ominously bringing the organization’s policies into line with longstanding rules for mainland media. RTHK itself reported:
RTHK staff have been banned from using “inappropriate” terms such as “Taiwan’s president” or “Taiwan government” in all radio, television and online output, to comply with the one-China principle.
In a circular disseminated to all staff on Tuesday afternoon, management said as Hong Kong’s public service broadcaster as well as a government department, RTHK must strictly abide by the principle and exercise a “high degree of caution” in the use of terminology in relation to Taiwan.
[…] FTU lawmaker Luk Chung-hung had last week enquired about RTHK’s previous use of “president” to refer to the island’s leader in a written question to Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau in Legco, suggesting that the broadcaster may have breached the one-China principle in doing so.
[…] In 2020, Yau had said an RTHK programme had breached the one-China principle when a former reporter asked a World Health Organisation official if the body would consider admitting Taiwan as a member.
However, the Communications Authority later ruled that complaints about the programme were unsubstantiated. It also found last month that a separate complaint over RTHK’s use of the word ‘president’ to refer to Tsai Ing-wen was unsubstantiated. [Source]
- As RTHK is Hong Kong’s public service broadcaster as well as a government department, it must strictly abide by the above guiding principles and exercise a high level of caution in relation to Taiwan in all its radio, television and new media services. Inappropriate nomenclature such as “country” / “Republic of China” / “R.O.C” / “中华民国” / “国立” / “行政院” must not be used when referring to Taiwan. Under no circumstances should Taiwan be referred to as a sovereign state or perceived as one.
- Since Taiwan is part of China, the most senior leader of Taiwan should be referred to as “台湾地区/当局领导人” but not as so-called “台湾总统”. Appropriate nomenclature should be used when referring to the so-called “Central” level of administration in Taiwan. For example, “台湾政府 / Taiwan Government” should be avoided and “台湾当局 / Taiwan authorities” should be used instead. “行政院” should be more appropriately addressed as “台湾行政机关”, “台湾地区行政管理机关” or other expressions that comply with the one-China principle and fit the status of Taiwan as part of China. [Source]
These new guidelines closely mirror a broader set of terms restricted from Xinhua news reports, which was first published in 2008 and translated by CDT in 2011. The full list details restrictions related to commercial and medical endorsements, references to celebrities and officials, slang, derogatory terms for disabilities, privacy and other issues in legal cases, ethnicity and religion, international relations, Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang, and territorial claims:
Prohibited terms concerning our territory, sovereignty, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau
A. Hong Kong and Macau are China’s Special Administrative Regions. Taiwan is one of China’s provinces. In any written word, on any map or chart, careful attention must be paid to not refer to it as a “country.” This is especially the case when many countries or regions are listed consecutively. Extreme attention must be given to slipping any semblance of the words “country or region” here.
B. When it is impossible to avoid referring to Taiwan’s political system and other organizations, quotations should be used. For example, Taiwan’s “Legislative Yuan,” “Executive Yuan,” “Control Yuan,” “Elections Committee,” “Executive Yuan’s Comptroller,” and so on. The appearance of “Central Government,” “National,” “Chinese Taipei,” in written word is prohibited, but in unavoidable instances, add quotations, such as in Taiwan’s “Central Bank,” and so on. Taiwan’s “Legislative Yuan Chief,” “Legislative Committee members,” and so on, must all be in quotation marks. Taiwan’s “Qinghua University” and “Imperial Palace Museum” must be in quotations. The use of “Republic of China President (Vice-President)” and other titles for Taiwanese officials are strictly forbidden, even with the use of quotation marks.
C. For the so-called laws administered by Taiwan, these should be called the “regulations concerning the region of Taiwan.” For Taiwanese legal affairs, never use “official validation,” “judiciary assistance,” “extradition,” or any other international legal terms.
D. The two shores of the Taiwan Straits and Hong Kong cannot be referred to as “two shores, three regions.”
E. Do not say “tourists from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan come to China for travel.” Instead say “tourists from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan come to the mainland (or inland) for travel.”
F. “Taiwan” and “the fatherland/ the mainland” are corresponding concepts. “Hong Kong and Macau” and “inland” are corresponding concepts. Do not confuse them.
G. Do not reference Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau together with a reference to China. For example, “China-Hong Kong,” “China-Taiwan” or “China-Macau.” Use “Inland and Hong Kong,” “mainland and Taiwan,” or “Beijing-Hong Kong,” “Shanghai-Hong Kong,” “Fujian-Taiwan,” and so on.
H. “The independence of Taiwan” or “Taiwanese independence” must be used with quotation marks.
I. Some of Taiwan’s societal organizations such as “China Taoist Culture Alliance,” “China Promotional Committee for Cross-Straits Marriage,” and others using “China,” must be used with quotation marks.
J. Taiwan cannot be called Formosa. If it must be used in a quotation, quotation makes must be used. [Source]
One quirk of the shifting ground beneath Hong Kong reporters’ feet has been RTHK’s own coverage of the constricting space for itself and other media in the city. In August, for example, it reported “China On The Dot” host Johnny Lau’s suspicions that the current affairs program’s cancelation was connected to the “not healthy” atmosphere for media and culture in Hong Kong. Previously, it had reported comments by recently sacked radio presenter Allan Au, who said that RTHK “has been using all its administrate [sic] power to do whatever it wants, to remove people and voices it doesn’t like,” and “acting against the spirit of public service broadcasting.” The report added: “The RTHK Programme Staff Union said it was extremely worried that impartial and critical voices are disappearing from the airwaves.”
Also in August, RTHK covered the release of the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s annual report, which described the past year as “the worst ever for press freedom in the territory.” The HKJA report painted RTHK’s situation in bleak terms: “The past year saw RTHK being devastated by a ‘supertyphoon.’ As this report went to the press, the storm is not yet over. [… T]heir plight reflects the big picture of increased curbs on the media in times of big change in Hong Kong.”
While RTHK dismantles itself from the inside, some of its journalists have found ways to survive on the outside. Former RTHK journalists have migrated to smaller, independent news outlets created amid the hostile climate of the national security law. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Rachel Cheung profiled three of these outlets and their link to RTHK journalists:
Across the city, Citizen News, a digital newsroom founded by a group of veteran journalists in 2017, has become, in the words of its reporters, “a refugee camp.” Some of the city’s sharpest journalists quietly joined the outlet for its editorial independence, while hiding their bylines to avoid unwanted attention. Citizen News has taken on journalists from Apple Daily and the neutered public broadcaster RTHK, and the entire China desk from a TV network, i-Cable. This summer, it hired twenty-four interns, almost doubling its headcount, and launched a fundraising campaign to support the expense. [Source]
Many have declared the death of #HongKong's press freedom. But in my latest article for @CJR, I look at three independent outlets in the city, which have adopted different strategies to stay afloat.https://t.co/tlLTAICmnW
— Rachel Cheung (@rachel_cheung1) September 29, 2021
Samuel Wade contributed to this post.