22 October 2019
Commercial Radio has irked the pro-establishment camp by airing audio clips from a controversial HKU governing body meeting. Photo: HKEJ
Commercial Radio has irked the pro-establishment camp by airing audio clips from a controversial HKU governing body meeting. Photo: HKEJ

Why Commercial Radio could face trouble during license renewal

Following the airing of leaked audio clips from a controversial Hong Kong University Council meeting, pressure is piling up on Commercial Radio. 

Authorities, while trying to find the source of the leak, also apparently want the radio station to admit that it had erred by putting in public domain internal discussions of HKU’s governing body. 

The university has obtained an injunction against Commercial Radio, prohibiting the station as well as other media outlets from airing or publishing any further information on the leaked recordings.

In the wake of the court order, the radio station has pulled some clips from its website but stressed that it will uphold freedom of speech and the public’s right to know.

Meanwhile, it also pointed out that the media has a duty to protect its sources and whistle-blowers. 

The station’s broadcast decision and its subsequent remarks haven’t gone down well with the pro-Beijing camp.   

The broadcaster is in the crosshairs of the establishment after its revelations on the HKU Council meeting that took place on September 29.

During that meeting pro-establishment council members rejected the appointment of law dean Johannes Chan as the university’s new pro-vice chancellor in a controversial vote.

The audio clips put out by Commercial Radio revealed the criticism leveled by a couple of council members against Chan. 

While we can’t go into the details of the leaked recordings, given the court injunction, the broadcast of the leaked clips has provided fresh ammunition to the radio station’s critics.

Now, there is a possibility that the Leung Chun-ying regime could use the incident to put some hurdles in the path of Commercial Radio when the station’s license comes up for renewal next year.

From Commercial Radio’s perspective, the airing of the clips was to let the public know what transpired during the HKU Council meeting.

The recordings helped in exposing the groundless allegations and criticism leveled by some council members against Chan.

But authorities deem it as a case of violation of the council’s right to confidentiality at internal discussions.

Meanwhile, the radio station was also seen as standing against the government and working with the opposition camp, which had backed Chan.

It’s commonly believed that Chan’s appointment as HKU pro-vice chancellor was voted down following an order from Beijing.

Chan was sympathetic toward the Occupy pro-democracy protesters last year, and he is also known for his liberal views on many other things.  

Observers believe pro-establishment members on HKU’s governing body were instructed to reject Chan’s appointment, and also manipulate media coverage in the run-up to the vote.

What Commercial Radio did last week ran counter to the interests of Leung and Beijing, a fact that authorities will keep in mind when the company seeks to renew its license in 2016.

The station, especially its morning talk show host Stephen Chan, has never hesitated to make critical comments on the government, making it a thorn in the side of the establishment.

While the Leung regime may not deny a fresh license outright, fearing that it could be seen as an act of revenge, authorities could however take some steps to reduce Commercial Radio’s audience. 

The station could be required to invest in new digital audio broadcasting service as a condition for license renewal.

Digital service will have much lesser audience that the traditional analogue radio broadcasting, as can be seen from the record of existing digital broadcasters Digital Broadcasting Corp. and Metro Radio.

If authorities force Commercial Radio to return its existing analogue license and take up a fresh one for digital service, it could erode the station’s influence among the public as well as dent the broadcaster’s finances.

Lower audience would mean weaker advertising revenues.

Given the track record of the Leung regime, it cannot be ruled out that Commercial Radio could be made to suffer in some way.

During the 2012 chief executive election campaign, Leung’s rival Henry Tang revealed that Leung had in the past suggested that Commercial Radio’s license be renewed for only 3 years, instead of normal practice of 12 years, as punishment for the broadcaster’s outspoken editorial tone.

Leung’s suggestion wasn’t accepted in 2004, but the situation could be different in 2016 now that he is in power.

Hong Kong people are glad to have a media outlet like Commercial Radio, whose job it is to speak the truth without fear or favor. 

If the government decides to shut or tone down its voice by using the license issue, it will be a pity.

It is time for Hong Kong people to once again stand up for free speech and independent media. 

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EJ Insight writer