Five months before their existing licenses expired, Hong Kong’s two privately owned radio broadcasters, Commercial Radio and Metro Broadcasts, finally received a new lease on life from the Leung Chun-ying administration.
But under the new licences, which are good for another 12 years, the government set a new requirement to ensure that radio program hosts of the two stations maintain political neutrality.
That means all of their radio programs are not allowed to have a clear political stance, which can be seen as a move by the government to limit the freedom of expression in the media sector.
According to commerce and economic development chief Greg So, the two new licences will expire on Aug. 25, 2028, and will be subject to a mid-term review in 2022.
In their six-year investment plans, Commercial Radio has committed to pour in HK$900 million while Metro Radio will allot HK$600 million.
But the most sensitive condition set in the license is as follows: “The stations have also undertaken to review and revise their written guidelines to strengthen guidance to their staff to ensure strict compliance with the impartiality requirements for factual programs dealing with public policy matters or controversial public issues, as set out in the radio code of practice on program standards.”
The impartiality requirement is like a dagger poised at the neck of the broadcasters.
While such a requirement has long been in the code of practice on program standards, this is the first time that the government urged the broadcasters to strengthen their guidance to staff on the matter of “impartiality”.
Apparently, the government was not satisfied with the performance of several radio programs, especially with regard to the impartiality rule.
While the government did not point out which radio station violated the impartiality requirement, it can be assumed that it is concerned with Commercial Radio, one of the most outspoken among mass media companies in the city.
Its current affairs programs are widely popular, apparently because they reflect the genuine sentiments of Hong Kong people.
This is readily apparent in the talk shows in the morning prime time slots as well as the evening and late night talk shows of Commercial Radio station 1.
These programs mostly take a critical approach toward government policies and their implementation, and offer ample air time to opposition parties and government critics.
Why is the government stressing the importance of the impartiality requirement? Being impartial means free from biased judgment, objective, fair and equitable. That means program hosts must always air both sides of an issue.
From the government’s perspective, such a requirement will ensure that opposition voices do not drown out the official views, thus allowing the administration to win back its share of the mass media market.
Of course, people will say mass media should always uphold professionalism and maintain neutrality.
But in actual radio programs, there are commentaries and talk shows where the hosts are required to take a stand on a particular issue, otherwise they will not be fulfilling their role as interpreters and analysts of news developments.
It will be a disservice to their audience if they refuse to take a stand under the guise of neutrality.
In fact, program hosts and commentators would look ridiculous if all their commentaries and statements began with “on the one hand…” and concluded with “on the other hand…”
It’s one thing to be balanced and fair, it’s another thing to refuse to take a stand.
There is a mechanism introduced in 2013 in which listeners are alerted that views expressed in a particular program are those of the host or the invited guests and do not necessarily reflect the views of the station or its management.
That mechanism should be enough to assign responsibility for the comments and views aired in the radio station.
But apparently, the government has other intentions in emphasizing the need for impartiality.
It wants to muzzle Commercial Radio, and stop it from airing views that expose the inadequacies and improprieties of the government. The administration simply doesn’t want opposition to its rule.
Commercial Radio has been at the forefront of the campaign for genuine universal suffrage. In 2014, it called on the people to join the Occupy protests and consequently earned the ire of Beijing loyalists.
Many government officials and pro-Beijing politicians have been reluctant to guest in the broadcaster’s talk shows.
As early as 2003, it was reported that CY Leung, in his capacity as convener of the Executive Council under the administration of Tung Chee-hwa, suggested that the effectivity of the broadcaster’s license be shortened to three years as a punishment for its anti-government stance.
So the government’s insistence on the impartiality requirement is a political decision made by the Leung administration to gag the radio station as part of its efforts to “harmonize” mass media and control the opposition.
It will be recalled that Commercial Radio removed outspoken program host Lee Wai-ling in late 2014, raising speculation that the broadcaster acquiesced to the government’s wishes in exchange for a new license.
Commercial Radio has long been under enormous pressure from the pro-Beijing camp to do something about its outspoken commentators and program hosts.
However, many Hong Kong people embrace its programs which reflect their views and sentiments.
According to a report by the Communication Authority on the broadcaster’s licence renewal, 77.1 percent of the Commercial Radio’s listeners were satisfied with its services while 1.9 percent considered them dissatisfactory.
“Current affairs programs and their hosts become less neutral or are not fair” was one of the top reasons cited by those who expressed dissatisfaction with its services.
Other feedbacks from the “public” about Commercial Radio’s performance:
• “[Commercial Radio] was responsible for the polarization of society and young people’s participation in illegal activities.”
• “They should not continuously criticize the Hong Kong government and the mainland government, and instigate the listeners to participate in the Occupy Central Movement.”
• “Commercial Radio only presented one-sided views and callers with opposing views were either not put through in phone-in programs or their calls were cut short by the program hosts.”
• “Commercial Radio made favorable comments on the pan-democratic camp and abused the airwaves to promote the interests of the pan-democratic camp.”
We could only imagine how glad CY Leung was when he finally found a way to rein in Commercial Radio, after his previous proposal to kick it out of the airwaves did not materialize.
Surely the impartiality requirement is a much more powerful weapon to force the radio broadcaster to tone down its outspoken style and stop it from being the government’s gadfly.
For its loyal supporters and followers, the new license could mark the end of a glorious era of Commercial Radio.
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