Media freedom issues hit Hong Kong

Government criticizes RTHK's editorials

HONG KONG — This newly minted Chinese city has fended off its first major attack on media freedom — for now.

A huge public outcry followed last week’s denunciation of the city’s public broadcaster by a Hong Kong official in Beijing. Xu Simin, who sits on a political advisory body, said state-run Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) should stop criticizing the government and instead be more positive toward government policies.

Xu called RTHK, which is modeled after the BBC, a “remnant of colonial rule” that should be brought to heel under the new regime. It’s apparently a popular view among the many pro-Beijing government officials in Hong Kong who resent the free-wheeling nature of some of the station’s programs.

The commotion only increased when Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa at first declined to defend the station’s independence. In response to a question about Xu’s comments, Tung said, “While freedom of speech is important, it is also important for government policies to be positively presented.”

After hearing the cry that went up after his remarks, Tung turned around and declared that he was firmly behind RTHK’s editorial independence and supports free speech.

Though it allocates nearly $26 million to run the broadcaster, the government does not control the editorial content. The station offers public affairs programming, including several popular call-in shows that regularly feature appearances by members of the opposition Democratic Party.

In the eight months since the handover of the British colony to China, there have been minor skirmishes between the media and the government, mainly over access to government events. Overall, most industry observers agree that Beijing has adhered to its “one country, two systems” policy and kept its hands off.

Nevertheless, any perceived threats of censorship are closely monitored and challenged in the media.

Though the local media is declaring a temporary RTHK victory, they are by no means letting down their defenses.

“There is only one direction in which the government will move on RTHK, and that is not toward granting greater freedom,” wrote a Sunday Morning Post columnist.

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