Free TV stations no longer required to broadcast RTHK programs

March 05, 2020 13:36
The government decision came amid accusations that RTHK has been airing news and other programs that are critical of the administration. Photo: RTHK

The government has lifted a requirement for free-TV stations to air programs produced by Radio Television Hong Kong amid accusations that the public broadcaster has been airing news and other programs that are critical of the administration, especially during the months-long protest movement.

In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, the Communications Authority (CA) announced the revocation of such a requirement for local free TV licensees, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

“After considering the free TV licensees' request and the views of the CEDB [Commerce and Economic Development Bureau], the CA concurs that there is no justifiable case to continue to require commercial broadcasters to broadcast RTHK programmes,” the authority said in the statement.

The free TV licensees may decide whether and when to cease broadcasting RTHK programs on their channels, said the CA, which consulted the CEDB following a request from Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB) for lifting the requirements on the broadcasting of RTHK programs.

At present, TVB is required to broadcast 3.5 hours of such programs every week and 2.5 hours for ViuTV, which is operated by HK Television Entertainment Company (HKTVE), on their integrated Chinese channels.

While both TVB and HKTVE welcomed the government move, the RTHK Programme Staff Union said it believed the decision was made after top police officials complained about a satirical program on RTHK that allegedly put the police force in a bad light.

The police force reacted strongly to two episodes of RTHK's program "Headliner", one (aired on Feb. 14) showing officers hoarding protective gear amid a shortage of face masks and similar equipment for frontline medical workers in the current novel coronavirus outbreak, and another (Feb. 28) about recent deaths in the city which the force ruled as not suspicious.

In a letter on Tuesday addressed to the Director of Broadcasting and published on the force's website, Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung reiterated the police's displeasure with the two episodes.

"As a public broadcaster, I believe that the programmes produced by your station should reflect the facts and let the general public understand what is happening in society, rather than mislead the audience," RTHK quoted Tang as saying in the letter.

"Headliner will cause viewers to have a wrong impression and misunderstanding of the police force. If the public loses confidence in the police force, criminals will have a chance to take advantage of it, and Hong Kong's law and order will be difficult to maintain. This is definitely of major public interest."

Accused of bias

At the height of the social unrest last year, pro-establishment groups staged a couple of rallies in front of RTHK offices to protest against what they considered as the public broadcaster's bias toward the protesters and against the administration and the police force in its news coverage.

Charles Mok Nai-kwong, a lawmaker representing the information technology sector and a member of the RTHK Programme Advisory Panel, said the CA decision is tantamount to inflicting punishment on RTHK and drying up its resources, while the public broadcaster has been recently attacked by the government and the pro-establishment camp.

Lifting the requirement would limit RTHK's ability to reach out to the public, Mok added.

However, pro-establishment lawmaker Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan, who is deputy chair of the Legislative Council’s Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting, believed the government move involved no political censorship but was only based on changes of the operating environment of the TV broadcasters.

In its statement, the CA said “lifting the requirements enables free TV licensees to put the spectrum and airtime released to more efficient use”, noting that the “timeslots vacated could be used to broadcast other programmes, thereby providing more diversified TV programme choices to the public”.

It would also allow commercial broadcasters to generate more income from advertisers and sponsors, “thereby facilitating their business amidst the increasing challenges faced by the broadcasting industry”.

“This decision would be consistent with the policy objective to facilitate innovation and sustainable development of the broadcasting industry,” the CA said, adding that there would be no impact on the public as viewers could continue to view RTHK programs through its own TV channels.

It said the requirements were introduced in 1990 when RTHK did not operate its own TV channels.

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