To the people of Radio Television Hong Kong, from past to present, both Chinese and English, on radio or television and of course the new media of the Internet and mobile, this is a letter to thank you all — to those I have the good fortune to have met or worked with as well as others I have not — for your dedication, steadfastness and utter professionalism.
For Hongkongers of my generation, we literally grew up with RTHK. We watched “Under the Lion Rock” and witnessed the courage and compassion of grassroots Hong Kong citizens as they struggled with daily hardships and injustice — yet coming through with a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, defined by love and decency, becoming what we today would consider to be the spirit of Hong Kong, and our core values, including freedom, equality, charity and integrity.
And so we watched “When We Were Young”, well, when we were really young children, in the 1970s. Then, as teenagers, we listened and sang along to music from the 1980s golden age of Hong Kong pop, played by Radio Hong Kong deejays in the afternoon. And as we grew up together, we followed the beat of the city on “Hong Kong Connection” and “City Forum”, as we tried to make sense of a more complicated Hong Kong.
And yes, I have had the good fortune of working with a great many RTHK programs, radio and TV, as a guest, interviewee, co-host, or like what I am doing now, occasionally contributing to Letters to Hong Kong. In the mid-1990s I even had the opportunity to work with a bunch of great people from inside and outside RTHK to bring its live radio programs to the Internet, letting Hong Kongers all over the world connect with their home city. In my capacity now as a legislator, naturally I have more interactions with the journalists of RTHK, a group that I find to be among the best in Hong Kong.
But it has also become clear to me that, since the handover, the role of RTHK has increasingly come under scrutiny and pressure, by those who want to see it turned into a mouthpiece for authorities. Ever since its establishment in 1928, RTHK has always been an exemplary public broadcaster. But it was never properly commissioned and set up as a statutory body or corporation for public service broadcasting. It remains just a government department, currently under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau.
When the public broadcaster is just a department in government, being assigned with an annual budget decided by the government, how does RTHK find its balance from being controlled by the government through budget and policy on the one hand, yet maintain its editorial and creative independence on the other hand? This is exactly where successive administrations of the Hong Kong SAR government are finding themselves at odds with RTHK, which is already functioning well as a mature, professional, globally recognised and acclaimed public broadcaster.
By adopting the mentality of the Central Government and its ruling party, the Hong Kong SAR government wants any critical voices silenced. This explains why RTHK has come under persecution from none other than the SAR government itself, with its political cronies. As Beijing interferes with the affairs of Hong Kong more and more blatantly and directly, we even heard news about alleged directives from the director of the Hong Kong Macau Office in Beijing to the Chief Executive in Hong Kong, telling her to “rein in” RTHK.
Sadly, since before 2009, RTHK has been looking for a new home for its studios and offices, to replace its antiquated and insufficient facilities and infrastructures, but to no avail. The pro-establishment vetoed a previous attempt by the government to fund a new RTHK broadcasting building in Tseung Kwan O in early 2014, and the government never came back with a new proposal. In the meantime, RTHK has been tasked with the additional responsibilities of two new digital TV channels, as well as for a while, digital audio broadcasting and one analog TV channel.
So, more work, more responsibilities, but not enough new resources, with no commitment for future development in sight. And then the government’s communications regulator allows the commercial broadcasters — TVB and nowTV — to stop showing RTHK TV programs on their airtime. What next? The very government bureau that put a limit on RTHK’s funding complained about the “low ratings” of RTHK’s digital TV channels, in spite of the fact that even this criticism is largely unfounded as it conveniently overlooked the success RTHK has achieved in its new media services, including the high level of online reach via YouTube, Facebook and its mobile apps.
So all these talks about low ratings are largely an excuse to cap or cut RTHK’s budget, to force it to become more obedient, editorially less independent and less critical, making it act more like the government mouthpieces in some authoritarian countries. RTHK’s critics picked on “The Headliner” — a long-running weekly show taking a satirical view on our current affairs and politics — and “The Pulse”, an English weekly news show, in particular over a recent interview with a World Health Organization official, where the program host probed the WHO official about Taiwan. A journalist’s completely neutral and open-ended question somehow crossed the red line of Beijing. Some questions cannot even be asked.
Last week, the Education Bureau suddenly ordered RTHK to return the ETV facility on Broadcast Drive, on short and sudden notice — due to the termination of RTHK’s production of educational TV programs for the EDB. Is this the way government departments deal with each other, without even the most basic courtesy and consideration? It is clearly yet another lesson the administration wants to teach RTHK, in line with calls from so many pro-establishment legislators to “punish” RTHK. It is both petty and vindictive.
But I know the people of Hong Kong are with you, all of you at RTHK. We can see that this is more than a job for you. This is a fight for not only Hong Kong’s treasured tradition of public service broadcasting, but also for the professionalism and core values of Hong Kong that you are protecting, that our authorities are trying to manhandle and ultimately destroy. In particular for the journalists at RTHK, we know you are fighting a tough battle with the rest of Hong Kong’s frontline journalists against the flood of misinformation often stemming right from the authorities themselves, and facing more and more senselessly violent abuse and physical danger from the police force on the frontline. What I want to say is, this is not just your fight, it is for all of us Hongkongers.
Editorial independence vs propaganda. Freedom vs censorship.
So, a lot of people ask me, what can we do now, for RTHK. We can continue to tune in, listen and watch like before, as well as view, like and share online. Hundreds of thousands of us have signed an online petition to support RTHK and urged the Director of Broadcasting to stand firm. These are the least we could do. And we will continue.
But we must also counter the attacks on RTHK in all ways we can, so that everyone in Hong Kong will see how divisive and politically motivated these attacks are, and how they will rob us of Hong Kong’s best, sinking us to a level unworthy of being a global city that we thought we were.
We must also remind everyone in Hong Kong, how ridiculous it is for our government, and indeed the same Commerce and Economic Development Bureau to propose to give billions of dollars to bail out an Ocean Park whose bottom has fallen out, yet at the same time hang RTHK out to dry. If we have to pick one of the two, gosh, the people’s choice is clear. It must be our RTHK.
To our friends at RTHK, thank you for standing right next to the people of Hong Kong all these years. And we will stand with you.