Hours after Beijing banned the BBC World Service, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster announced Friday that it will also drop certain BBC programs, sparking concern from foreign governments and journalist organizations.
Beijing’s tit-for-tat move to block the BBC came a week after the U.K. revoked the local license for the Chinese government-backed CGTN network, citing its insufficient editorial independence.
The former British colony’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) stated Friday that it too would drop certain BBC radio programs that same day. It had been putting out BBC World Service reports for more than four decades.
Keith Richburg, the head of the University of Hong Kong’s journalism and media studies center, said RTHK’s decision was “surprising” and a “very worrying sign,” given that Hong Kong is “supposedly still autonomous.”
“It doesn’t seem like the people who make editorial decisions at RTHK would do something like this unless they [received] some direction to,” given the channel’s history of editorial independence, he said in a report published on RTHK’s own print service, calling for an inquiry into how the decision was made.
The RTHK Program Staff Union has requested an explanation of the move from both their employer and the local government, stating that it recalls no prior instances in which Hong Kong entities were required to follow orders from the mainland’s broadcasting regulator, the report added.
Beijing had accused the BBC of pushing “fake news,” particularly in its China reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and Xinjiang, and of thereby undermining the country’s “national interests and ethnic solidarity.”
The BBC responded Friday in a new statement that said: “We stand by our journalism and totally reject accusations of inaccuracy and ideological bias. Our journalists have reported stories in mainland China and Hong Kong truthfully and fairly, as they do everywhere in the world.”
On Thursday, a BBC spokeswoman told Variety that the firm was “disappointed,” and defended its reporting as “without fear or favor.”
Unlike CCTV or CGTN, the BBC is editorially independent despite receiving British government funding.
Beijing’s ban on the BBC is in some ways more symbolic than practical, as its programming was already restricted in China to only international hotels and some residences or venues licensed for use by foreigners. Even then, it would suddenly cut to black during any China-related reports deemed overly politically sensitive.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China expressed concern Friday that the language used by Chinese authorities to justify the ban was intended to “send a warning to foreign media operating in China that they may face sanctions if their reporting does not follow the Chinese party line about Xinjiang and other ethnic minority regions.”
The body said that while it agreed with authorities that reports should strive for objectivity, it “opposes attempts to define good journalism as that which upholds the policies, ideological positions, or interests of any government.”
The Biden administration said Thursday that it “absolutely condemns” China’s decision to ban the BBC.
“The PRC maintains one of the most controlled, most oppressive, least free information spaces in the world,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “It’s troubling that as the PRC restricts outlets and platforms from operating freely in China, Beijing’s leaders use free and open media environments overseas to promote misinformation.”