Hong Kong’s media sector has often been criticized for its tendency to side with Beijing authorities and the establishment in reporting political news and other developments, but at least most media outlets have managed to retain their local identity and differentiate themselves from their mainland counterparts by using Cantonese and Traditional Chinese characters in their broadcasts and publications.
Even this may soon be a thing of the past, however.
Television Broadcasts, the city’s largest free-to-air TV operator, on Monday started to offer a 45-minute news and information program in Putonghua with simplified Chinese characters for the subtitles on prime time.
“Hong Kong is an international city. This new arrangement will offer our viewers more choice and better serve different audience needs,” a TVB spokesperson said in emailed statement on Tuesday, adding that newscasts on Jade and 24-hour iNews channels will continue to be in Cantonese with Traditional Chinese subtitles.
The TV station’s Putonghua news program is another clear indication of our city’s mainlandization. For Beijing, it is not enough that Hong Kong mass media toe the Communist Party line, they must also be a part of its propaganda machine in both form and content.
TVB’s new Putonghua programs have drawn the ire of netizens who fear that the broadcaster is fast becoming a unit of the state-backed China Central Television (CCTV).
Indeed, the local broadcaster has taken its pro-Beijing image to the next level.
Also from Monday, TVB has reshuffled the channels on its digital terrestrial service. The Cantonese-speaking HD Jade channel has been changed to J5, offering news and finance programs at daytime, along with content from overseas broadcasters.
But the most controversial aspect of the new arrangement is that the entire series of programs from 8:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. offers news, business news, weather report and news files in Putonghua, complete with subtitles in Simplified Chinese characters.
Even the graphics, charts and tables used during the program — along with the names of the reporters and anchors — are all in Simplified Chinese characters.
This is certainly shocking for many Hong Kong viewers, who expected their news and other TV programs delivered in a medium that is familiar with them.
While Hong Kong’s free television channels are required to provide Putonghua news programs as part of the terms and conditions for their license to operate, the two free TV broadcasters, TVB and ATV, arrange such programs to be aired on their English channels to cater for minority interests.
But this time, TVB is putting the Putonghua program on its popular digital channel, and scrapping all the Cantonese news and information programs on the same channel at prime time.
That has substantially reduced the choice for Cantonese-speaking viewers, as the HD Jade channel used to air a Cantonese news program at 7:00 p.m.
On social media, many Hong Kong people assailed TVB’s new arrangement and accused the station’s management of kowtowing to central authorities, who have long been pressing for the use of Putonghua and Simplified Chinese characters across the whole of China.
They said the government is practically giving the TV viewing public no more choice, considering that TVB’s smaller rival, Asia Television, will see license expire in April.
As such, they said, TVB is abusing its dominant position in the television market to perform a propaganda function, which is aligned with the education bureau’s policy of encouraging students to learn Putonghua and Simplified Chinese characters.
In view of this worrisome development, neo-democrat lawmaker Gary Fan urged Hong Kong people to join a petition to be sent to TVB and the media regulator expressing their anger at the broadcaster for ignoring the interest of the Cantonese-speaking public.
Those defending TVB’s new arrangement are likely to cite market demand. But if that is true, if Putonghua news programs are in high demand in Hong Kong, then why is it that Phoenix Television news channel’s ratings remain in the cellar? Why is it that Phoenix U Radio, broadcast in Putonghua, finally shut down amid a lack of listeners?
TVB’s revamp of its J5 news program is apparently meant to test the waters for Chinese-style news programming at prime time, which would pave the way for the entry of Putonghua news programs into its most popular Jade channel.
TVB has always prided itself as a local television broadcaster since its debut in 1967.
But company has been shifting its focus to China after its founder, the late Sir Run Run Shaw, sold his stake to a consortium led by Hong Kong businessman Charles Chan in 2011.
In 2012, the company formed a joint venture with Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital called TVBC. And last year, China Media Capital founder Li Ruigang became a shareholder of TVB.
There has been speculation in the market that Li, being a former senior official in the Shanghai government, could put pressure on TVB to toe the Communist Party line, both in the commercial and political aspects of its operations.
Last year, TVB exited its profitable Taiwan satellite television channel operations, indicating that the broadcaster is focusing on the China market.
Meanwhile, Beijing is tightening its grip on the media sector. Just recently, it banned foreign companies from producing any online content in China.
President Xi Jinping also surprised the market by paying visits to the nation’s top three state-run-media firms — People’s Daily newspaper, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV.
During the visits, Xi told editors and reporters to pledge absolute loyalty to the Communist Party and follow its leadership in “thought, politics and action”.
At CCTV, Xi was welcomed by a signboard that reads, “The Central Television’s family name is the party.”
In his speech, the Chinese leader told CCTV staff that the media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name.
He demanded absolute loyalty from state media.
Of course, TVB is a privately owned company. But its editorial direction indicates that its loyalty is moving towards the establishment.
Now it has started a full China-style news program on prime time while downgrading its Cantonese news programs.
Will TVB soon adopt the Communist Party as its family name, too?
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