Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB), Hong Kong’s largest television broadcaster, should be using its influence to help safeguard justice and press freedom.
Instead, it has raised concern after its news controller was accused of censoring a voice-over on an exclusive video of a protester being beaten by policemen at Tamar Park in the early hours Wednesday.
A TVB camera crew recorded the incident in a four-minute clip, showing social worker Ken Tsang being taken by seven officers to a dark corner where they begin kicking him and hitting him with truncheons.
The footage aired overnight with a report by the TVB journalist at the scene, which said “Tsang was kicked and hit by the police”.
However, the voice-over had been removed in subsequent broadcasts. TVB’s news website carried a video-only account of the beating.
Later, a news update said Tsang was “allegedly hit by the police” and references to “kicking and hitting” had been removed.
TVB earned praise from the public for airing the video but lost credibility after news controller Yuen Chi-wai ordered the removal of the voice-over.
Media professionals said the move smacked of self-censorship and pandering to the police.
More than 50 TVB reporters and news anchors denounced the move in a petition expressing their disagreement with Yuen’s actions.
“The neutrality of the commentary was not in question, as it simply described what was taking place,” the statement said.
The group demanded management adhere to professional ethics and allow staff to report events as accurately as possible.
Yuen said the voice-over was updated after the victim said he intended to sue the policemen for misconduct. He said he decided to use a more neutral language to avoid contempt of court “in the future”.
Whatever his reasons, Yuen did not help ease concern that mainstream Hong Kong media is playing down the protests in order not to antagonize Beijing.
In the case of TVB, disaffected employees are fighting for their right to practice their profession. Doing no harm to Beijing is not part of it.
The journalists’ newsroom struggle could be compared to the democracy protest in which one side is up against a superior force — the activists against the government, the reporters against their bosses.
Yuen showed lack of faith in his frontline staff by overriding their judgment with his own interpretation of a story he could not possibly have known as well as the reporters who covered it.
If he was concerned about neutrality, he made things worse by distorting a story that had already been repeatedly seen by the public. He insulted not only his own reporters but also TVB viewers.
Yuen and TVB will insist such decisions are made with deliberation by the newsroom management. Most likely, they will invoke the highest standards of professionalism in the way they deal with the news.
That is beside the point. As a pillar of free speech in a free society, TVB is more than a television station that reports the news. It is a public trust.
That is why Yuen’s actions have caused so much public outrage and anger among his own staff.
And to think that he did not even have to do anything in the first place.
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