HONG KONG — China has backed away from a threatened crackdown on the territory’s broadcasters. But the move comes as it went ahead this week with plans to water down civil liberties after the July 1 handover by revoking laws that protect free speech and freedom of assembly.
Overall, reaction has been muted to China’s decision to leave broadcasting rules intact.
“It doesn’t affect Star directly because we show movies, music, entertainment,” said Jannie Poon, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong-based Star TV, which delivers its programming via satellite in the territory. “But generally, for all broadcasters, it’s good news.”
But media-watchers say the bit of good news hardly compensates for the planned assault on civil rights.
Over the past few years, the British colonial government has amended many outdated laws to conform with the 1991 Bill of Rights. For its part, China has made it clear that a British-imposed Bill of Rights is unnecessary be-cause fundamental freedoms will be guaranteed under what’s called the Basic Law.
To show it meant business, in October 1995 a China-appointed committee announced that a number of broadcasting and security rules would come under the microscope. The committee has now recommended the repeal of laws that had ended police power to ban peaceful demonstrations, relaxed controls on links with foreign organizations, and protected the privacy of personal data collected on citizens.
If the committee had also recommended the repeal of the broadcasting rules, then a government body could have resumed its power to suspend broadcasters’ licenses, ban radio programs considered a threat and give some directives to the Broadcasting Authority. A repeal also would have called into question the legal basis of the one cable license holder.
“There was some concern then as to whether this would affect cable television,” said Garmen Chan, external affairs director at Wharf Cable, which has a monopoly on cable services until 1998. “But our license is for 12 years, so there is no reason why there should be any changes after 1997.”
Added Chan: “We were pretty comfortable. We saw no reason why they would revoke our license.”
Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten has called the proposed changes “legal nonsense.” He added that China was sending “a very powerful and disturbing message” just five months before the handover.