31 December 2020

HKCT Review 2020: Media

HKCT Review 2020: Media

Hong Kong’s media freedom suffered serious blows during 2020, but much critical reporting continues, as shown by HKCT’s translations of coverage throughout the year. RTHK, the public broadcaster, has faced substantial government pressure to bring its programming into line with the government’s views. The Headliner, a popular satire programme, will go. Jessie Ting, a civil servant close to Carrie Lam, will head a ‘governance review’. Meanwhile, 3 senior executives will leave RTHK, and Nabela Qoser, a popular reporter, continues in her probationary period long after it was due to end.

The pattern has been repeated elsewhere. At Cable News in August and now News in June, new executives who previously worked at Television Broadcasts (TVB) were parachuted in. TVB is accused of being excessively deferential to the government and Beijing. Personnel changes at Cable News continued.  After an initial round of lay-offs supposedly on financial grounds, including the firing of the whole News Lancet investigative team, many other journalists resigned in solidarity in December. They include a third of the staff of the finance desk, the whole reporting staff of the China desk, and 5 senior executives including 2 assistant news controllers. No similar changes have occurred at now News, but Bill Chan, the new head of now News, ordered a report about the Communist Party membership of a Pro-Vice-Chancellor appointee at HKU deleted.

Reporters who do not face pressure from management instead confront obstacles from the government. Bao Choy, an RTHK producer who contributed to an earlier extensive report on the 21 July Yuen Long attack, was arrested in November because he conducted a vehicle search on a government database. The Buildings Department denied Cable News journalists access to building plans after a fire killed eight in Yau Ma Tei.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the year, however, was the search of Apple Daily. Large numbers of police stormed its offices and even seized journalistic material. It took several months before Apple Daily obtained a High Court order to have the documents returned. Apple Daily’s troubles did not end there. Jimmy Lai, its owner, was entangled in legal troubles in December and denied bail. He was transferred to court at one point in chains.

Also worth noting is that the Chief Executive and her bureaux secretaries receive far more interviews from Mainland media, including CCTV, Global Times, Shenzhen TV and so on. It seems this has become the trend to avoid appearing in Hong Kong media and hence less palatable questions.

Police treatment of journalists

The Privacy Commissioner opened a case in late December after a police officer revealed the HKID of a journalist on a live stream. The HKJA said that his actions may have breached the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, and demanded an investigation (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2531137923770258). The Commissioner eventually found against the police officer (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2835822119968502).

Fewer protests and clashes took place this year, but the police still behaved violently towards journalists when the opportunity arose. In May, the police pepper-sprayed clearly identified reporters in Sha Tin (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2648939831990066). Media associations including the HKJA met the Commissioner of Police later to complain about the incident, and Tang apologised on his own behalf (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2655189974698385). In August, a Japanese reporter was dragged by the police within a police cordon, and several were pepper-sprayed. The Japanese journalist was released once he was allowed to show his details (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2721930324691016). It was later found that he wasn’t covering anything at that point. The police also attacked a Cable News reporter in March but insisted it was accidental (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2595091974041519).

RTHK under threat?

In June, Headliner, an RTHK political satire show, said goodbye after the last episode of the season (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2678867765663939). A former host of the show said that even if it were to resume it would be an empty shell amidst government interference (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2654127591471290). The end of the programme followed complaints about a programme satirising the police, which was eventually upheld by the Communications Authority. The RTHK Programme Staff Union and HKJA immediately announced an application for judicial review (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2728773524006696). In February, RTHK responded to complaints by pointing out that Headliner was obviously satirical and no reasonable person would have considered it a current affairs programme (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2584501995100517) but it apologised after the ruling (see link before).

Nabela Qoser, Assistant Programme Officer at RTHK, became notable locally for her aggressive questioning of senior officials at press conferences. Her probationary period was initially scheduled to end in October, but was extended by 120 days in late September. In December, the Ombudsman rejected a complaint against the extension launched by the former chair of the RTHK Programme Staff Union, Shum Yi-lan (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2832074360343278). Some sources said that the government had pressured RTHK in Qoser’s case (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2762871967263518). An investigation prompted by a complaint against her was also reopened in September (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2763280400556008). In a possible sign of RTHK management’s view of the matter, Fung Kin-yip, Deputy Director of Broadcasting, ordered 3,000 complaints against Qoser printed, but the Corporate Communications and Standards Unit did nothing about letters of appreciation (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2810926635791384). The RTHK said that the treatment of Qoser could lead to a chilling effect and that the actions taken against her were highly unusual (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2763393710544677). At a meeting of RTHK staff, Fung appeared to compare the investigation to a criminal case, but refused to apologise, so Leung Ka-wing, Director of Broadcasting, apologised on his behalf. At least 59,000 people signed a petition in support of Qoser (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2775651425985572).

The pro-Beijing camp’s opposition to RTHK has continued. In January, Politihk Social Strategic, a pro-Beijing group, held 2 protests outside RTHK. They made various demands, including the inclusion of pro-Beijing content and the firing of Nabela Qoser and Chan Miu-ling (RTHK journalists) (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2552229758327741, https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2553101374907246).

Another RTHK programme, Pentaprism II, also came under attack. In April, the Communications Authority held that a guest host, Sam Choi Chun-wai, made inaccurate and unfair comments about the police. The programme aired in November last year during some of the worst clashes of the anti-ELAB protests at PolyU and CUHK (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2631077897109593). Chris Tang, the police commissioner, also complained to Education University, where Choi was a lecturer. Tang said that the remarks constituted ‘hate speech’ (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2635754596641923).

In June, Ming Pao reported that 3 senior RTHK executives would leave within the next year. The RTHK Programme Staff Union said that RTHK veteran Kirindi Chan Man-kuen was operating under substantial pressure from external forces, whilst some sources praised her for defending editorial independence (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2672678749616174). It also urged the government not to impose former civil servants on RTHK (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2672827929601256).

RTHK also faces a threat from a review by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, under which it operates. Jessie Ting who previously worked in the Chief Executive’s Office is to lead the review (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2692446874306028).

Hong Kong Connection’s episode on the 21 July triad attack at Yuen Long station was praised by Leung Ka-wing, Director of Broadcasting, as good enough to be used as exemplary material in journalism school. He made these remarks in response to inquiries from the Chairman of the Board of Advisors of RTHK, Eugene Chan Kin-keung. Chan said that Junius Ho had complained about how he had been reported on (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2769060549977993). It is common practice for journalists to use public databases, i.e. checking the register from the government to verify information. Bao Choy, an RTHK producer, was arrested for making a false statement, after she used a publicly available government database to make a vehicle registration search (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2796312300586151). Media groups demanded that the charges should be dropped (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2807524582798256). RTHK said that they would try to help, but some sources mentioned difficulties since Choy was a self-employed contractor (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2796358557248192). Amen Ng, then head of RTHK Corporate Communications and Standards, said that they would provide assistance if necessary. Director Leung said that he was worried about a chilling effect and that the arrest of a journalist for doing her job was highly unusual (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2795721067311941). Eugene Chan, however, said in an interview with Elizabeth Quat of the pro-Beijing DAB that the incident was like running a red light, and had nothing to do with press freedom (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2819984894885558).

Media muzzled?

Cable News was renowned for its investigatory coverage of China and Hong Kong. In June it emerged that William Fung, who oversaw Chinese news, had ordered the airing time of a programme about the Tian'anmen Square massacre to be changed. A major personnel change took place in August. William Fung became a consultant, whilst several new executives were appointed: Edna Tse as Deputy General Manager of Chinese news (from HKIBC, the channel's English channel), and Oscar Lee and Anderson Chan as news controllers (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2718346681716047). Hui Fong-fai also was parachuted in from TVB to Cable News (see https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2732887980261917). About 2 weeks later, 3 veterans of the Engineering Department were fired. Many employees from different departments demanded their reinstatement (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2731173477100034).

At the start of December, about 40 employees were sacked suddenly. This included the entirety of the News Lancet team, renowned for its investigative reporting. Many journalists were sceptical of the new management of Cable News, and decided to resign en masse. Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Baptist University, suggested that pressure from Beijing could have caused the changes (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2820667304817317). 5 senior editors including the assistant news controller resigned. Taking into account lay-offs nearly a third of the finance desk left the company (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2821557884728259). The whole China desk and the head of the Hong Kong desk also resigned (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2820053588212022).

The management of Cable News issued an apology the next day for their ‘handling’ of the situation in an attempt to retain people. They promised no change in editorial policy, no lay-offs or pay cuts for 2 years, and promotions for those who remained, as well as better communication. Management said generally that the company needed to restructure to ensure its continued viability (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2821534181397296). HKCT learnt that some of the journalists sacked or resigned may go to another media collectively, but we have not been able to verify such source yet.

Cheng Sze-sze, a former journalist at Cable News, said that she had remained despite offers of a much higher salary elsewhere. In the end, her colleague Yeung Leung-kit from News Lancet was photographed carrying a cardboard box leaving with his personal belongings. The News Lancet team had 8 members at its peak, but only Yeung and reporters with just half a year’s experience remained by the end (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2823795817837799).

Around the same time, the Buildings Department refused to allow Cable TV reporters to see the building plans of some flats in Yau Ma Tei. A fire had previously killed eight people there. The Buildings Department maintains that the plans are open to the public, but Cable TV, for unknown reasons, was unable to access the documents. The HKJA said that access to the documents was clearly in the public interest. Meanwhile, the Buildings Department said it had no information as to the number of applications to inspect documents, or how many were rejected (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2817601108457270).

In June, Bill Chan was appointed to lead now News. Chan previously worked for TVB, which has been accused of pro-government bias. Queenie Wu Yi-tyng, also formerly at TVB, will move to now News. It was also rumoured that Politico 政情, a current affairs "gossip" programme, might be suspended (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2681437115407004). Eventually, it was not suspended. In August, some staff planned to wear black in response to the arrest of Lam Cheuk-ting for rioting on 21 July. Lam livestreamed the attack by pro-Beijing triads at Yuen Long station and was himself injured. Chan, however, compared this to a ‘colour revolution’ and ordered staff not wear black (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2735791693304879). Later, in October, Chan ordered the removal of a report about the party membership of an academic to be appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Hong Kong University (see education section for more details). He said that it was ‘inappropriate’—quite why was unclear, because he hung up immediately after being asked (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2786976034853111). now News later was rumoured to have attempted to change one of the hosts of an interview programme to Starry Lee, DAB chairman. After complaints from the pro-Beijing camp and a threat by the mother of the victim of the Taiwanese murder that ostensibly led to the extradition amendment bill, the attempt was put on the backburner (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2772922572925124).

After the enactment of the National Security Law, the police searched Apple Daily’s offices in August (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2721044358112946). The police only allowed media outlets they considered friendly to observe the search. They claimed that they had already made sure not to search certain departments, but others reported that some working in the editorial department were ordered to leave their seats even though they were working (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2720714608145921). HKJA denounced the raid and said it trampled on freedom of the press. When an executive complained that the police were searching reporters’ documents, the police threatened to arrest him (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2720727744811274). The pan-democratic camp also strongly condemned the search (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2720802578137124). Apple Daily approached the High Court over the seizure of some journalistic materials (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2781743945376320). It was later reported that Justice Wilson Chan had ordered their return. In response, many convenience stores and newsstands ordered hundreds of thousands of copies, and circulation rose from 72,000 to 350,000 (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1489251731292221/2721441028073279/).

In November, a student journalist at the Hong Kong Baptist University Students’ Union Editorial Board was arrested for obstructing police at a protest in May (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2796606690556712). Another journalist from Ben Yu Entertainment (娛賓) was also arrested on similar charges in May (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2801261666757881).

It emerged in November that Kung Kao Po, Hong Kong’s Roman Catholic newspaper, had censored an article criticising the police. The Justice and Peace Commission said on social media that the editor of Kung Kao Po had cut various sections of an article about the police. The editor of Kung Kao Po replied that it was to ensure that the article focused on the value of life (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2817485451802169).

Media regulation

In March, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club wrote to the Chief Executive to ask whether bans on US outlets in retaliation for similar measures taken in the US would extend to Hong Kong after unclear answers from her to a previous letter (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2603772763173440). They wrote again in June to express concern that the National Security Law would curtail journalistic freedom (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2684545348429514).

In May it emerged that the police were considering a 2-tier system for reporters, by which staff of citizen and student media would not be treated as journalists. The HKJA said that everyone has the right to cover news, and that this right was recognised in human rights law (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2659142904303092).

In July, John Lee, Secretary for Security, said that planning was underway to punish ‘fake reporters’ and regulate the media. The HKJA slammed the proposals and said that they were similar to practice on the Mainland (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2711710559046326).

Despite this concern for identifying ‘fake reporters’, the police refused to investigate HKJA allegations from May that a social media post incited others to forge press cards. They cited a lack of evidence, but this did not satisfy the HKJA (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2718016261749089).

In September, the police modified the Police General Orders to severely restrict the definition of a journalist, excluding citizen journalists and student media outlets. The police said the changes would facilitate media coverage, but Vivian Tam of Journalism Educators for Press Freedom pointed out that she had helped Police Public Relations Branch to allow student reporters to leave PolyU during the clashes there in November 2019. 8 media unions, including the HKJA, held a press conference to condemn the change (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2759784050905643/).

In December, however, it emerged that it was the police who had not identified themselves properly. Justice Anderson Chow in the Court of First Instance found in favour of the HKJA after they lodged a case in response to the police’s repeated refusal to properly identify reporters. Chow also held that the existing complaints mechanism was inadequate and that the Complaints Against Police Office was not independent of the police as a whole (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2810230569194324). The police rejected the ruling and planned to appeal (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2824363347781046).

Jimmy Lai case

The owner of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy local newspaper, was caught up in various legal troubles and caught international attention this year.

In December, Lai was charged with fraud and remanded in police custody till his trial in April. 2 other executives of Next Digital, Apple Daily’s publisher, were also charged, but were granted bail. They were accused of violating the terms of Next Digital’s lease (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2821820781368636). When Lai appeared in court later, he did so in chains. The police additionally charged him with collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security, the first such charge under the National Security Law (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2828239674060080). In late December, Lai was granted bail by the High Court, but the bail conditions left him under effective house arrest and prohibited him from giving interviews or publishing articles. The court required $10 million cash bail and a $300,000 surety.  (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2836732149877499).

After the court granted bail to the media tycoon Jimmy Lai in late December, he had to pay a cash bail of HK$10 million and surrender his travel documents, along with other bail conditions, including not accepting media interviews and not posting on social media (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2836470046570376). Despite all those harsh conditions, a Chinese state-run newspaper criticised the High Court for granting the “serious offender” bail. (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2839423089608405). Jimmy Lai resigned on 29 Dec as the chairman of Next Digital, which will be taken up by Ip Yut-kin (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2841007502783297/). On the last day of the year, Lai was put in remand again (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1489251731292221/2842420849308629/).

Lai’s arrest attracted international attention. Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo called for his release (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2829035060647208). The Deputy Secretary-General of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party said that he thought the CCP had a had in Lai’s arrest as well as other incidents such as mass lay-offs at Cable News (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2822074144676633). Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) announced that Lai was their special laureate this year (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2825976994286348). In China, Gu Minkang of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies said that Lai should be tried in China to set an example (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2831357710414943).


After the US government imposed restrictions on Chinese state media, China retaliated by expelling 13 American journalists (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2602246826659367). Hong Kong Watch condemned the expulsion (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2601844540032929). The Foreign Correspondents’ Club noted that they will also be prohibited from working in Hong Kong, which was prima facie inconsistent with the protection of press freedom in Hong Kong (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2602047046679345).

Visa troubles also hit Aaron Mc Nicholas, an Irish journalist. After 5 years of reporting in Hong Kong, the Immigration Department refused to renew his visa. Mc Nicholas was planning to take up a job at an online English media outlet in Hong Kong. As usual, ImmD did not state why (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2766684486882266). The Foreign Correspondents’ Club asked the Immigration Department whether a new national security unit had been asked to vet journalists’ visa applications (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2722792634604785/). The Immigration Department, however, refused to give a clear answer (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2728290110721704).

An RTHK journalist asked Bruce Aylward, a senior WHO official, whether it should consider admitting Taiwan. Aylward then pretended not to be able to hear and then hung up (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2612179592332757). Edward Yau, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, then claimed that RTHK had in some unspecified way violated the ‘One China’ principle by asking about Taiwan. When asked, Carrie Lam said that she agreed with Edward Yau (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2618859284998121).

Internationally, Hong Kong has fallen further down press freedom rankings. It now is 80th (down by 7) internationally due to noticeable problem in its treatment of journalists during pro-democracy demonstrations, according to Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2759352134282168).

In October, Danny Vincent, BBC's journalist in Hong Kong, said he was followed by a suspicious man. He found someone waiting for him outside his home in the same week that Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and others were arrested for violating Hong Kong's National Security Law, and that he saw the same car at various locations and after moving to a hotel (facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2771063163111065).

Broadsides from the pro-Beijing camp

The government’s attitude to public relations has hardened over the years. In December, the Security Bureau issued a vague statement about Ted Hui, who had fled into exile, but declined to name him. It condemned as ‘shameful’ any abscondment ‘to avoid legal responsibility’, and denounced ‘so-called “exile”’ (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2822408864643161). Some academics think that the vocabulary of the Hong Kong government has changed, increasingly echoing the central government’s shrill tones of denunciation (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2831638880386826).

Police unions have long been angered by any critical coverage in the media. Now the staff of the Immigration Department have joined them. RTHK’s ‘Hong Kong Connection’ alleged inhumane treatment at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre. 4 unions condemned the report, as did Elizabeth Quat, a pro-Beijing lawmaker (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2832083513675696). The Immigration Department also condemned critical coverage (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2832491796968201).

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