5 March 1998

Democratic Party Criticizes Moves to Muzzle Broadcaster

The Democratic Party today condemned calls in Beijing by leading China advisor Xu Simin to silence criticism of Hong Kong government policies on government-funded broadcaster Radio-Television Hong Kong, known as RTHK. Hong Kong Chief Executive C.H. Tung, when asked in Beijing to comment, did not repudiate the censorship suggestion, but said instead: "...While freedom of speech is important, it is also important for government policies to be positively presented." Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee Standing Committee member Mr. Xu objected to a RTHK television programme in which Martin Lee criticised Hong Kong's electoral arrangements.

The attack on the Hong Kong broadcaster came in a week which has seen the government refuse to prosecute Xinhua, the New China News Agency, for clear offenses under the Privacy Ordinance and as government officials have been criticised for intimidation for demanding apologies from ATV for on-air criticism from media personality Albert Cheng. Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee and Sin Chung Kai, the Democrats' spokesman on Information Technology and Broadcasting held a press conference today to denounce the attack on RTHK's editorial independence and to endorse the importance of press autonomy.

Martin Lee commented:

"I hope this does not signal a desire to transplant the communist system of propagandistic journalism into Hong Kong. No government or individual wants to be criticised by the press -- I don't like it myself. But it is press freedom which provides the most important check on government excess and thus protects all of our other rights.

The press is not supposed to be the defender of government policies. Except in authoritarian countries, it is the norm for government-funded broadcasters to enjoy autonomy and to freely criticise the government -- consider the examples of the BBC and the US's National Public Radio, which frequently investigate and criticize government activities.

Mr. Tung should be embracing journalistic criticism as a sign to the world that press freedom flourishes under Chinese rule. Instead, this incident jeopardizes not only the autonomy of RTHK -- but also the autonomy that Hong Kong is guaranteed in the Joint Declaration. We call on Mr. Tung to clarify his remarks and to reiterate that RTHK and all Hong Kong journalists will enjoy genuine press freedom, now and in the future."

Broadcasting spokesman Sin Chung-Kai added:

"RTHK as a public institution should be responsible, objective and provide different kinds of programming to the public. It should not be used as a mouthpiece for the government, nor only positively present government policies. Muzzling non-government views is guaranteed to exacerbate tensions in the society."

Thursday, March 5, 1998

South China Morning Post

Tung Sparks RTHK Autonomy Fears

LINDA CHOY in Beijing and CHRIS YEUNG There were fears for the independence of RTHK last night after Tung Chee-hwa said the government broadcaster should be promoting official policy.

Amid calls for greater control of the station, he said: "There have been a lot of comments on RTHK. While freedom of speech is important, it is also important for government policies to be positively presented. I will look into the matter further."

At a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference sub-group meeting yesterday, Standing Committee member Xu Simin, 86, said RTHK was critical of Beijing, the SAR Government and Mr Tung.

Describing it as a "remnant of British rule", Mr Xu said: "It is against the SAR Government and Mr Tung under the pretext of editorial independence.

"Mr Tung is completely helpless. I have proposed thrice that he do something. He only says 'slowly, slowly'."

Mr Tung would be unable to rule effectively without a supportive RTHK, he said. Mr Xu claimed the station carried speeches aimed at sabotaging the voter registration exercise.

Referring to a television programme on the registration exercise during which Democratic Party chief Martin Lee Chu-ming criticised the electoral system, Mr Xu said: "How can a station which receives $200 million a year from the Government call on people not to take part in the registration exercise, which cost $60 million?"

Mr Xu admitted he was not a frequent listener to, or viewer of, RTHK programmes, but said some phone-in shows were critical of Beijing and Mr Tung.

"People tell me this radio station criticises first the mainland Government and then Mr Tung from eight to 10 o'clock in the morning everyday. It then does it again from four to six o'clock in the afternoon," he said.

After arriving in Beijing to attend today's National People's Congress opening ceremony, Mr Tung said he would not confirm if he had said he would handle RTHK "slowly". But he dismissed fears Mr Xu's comments would affect staff morale.

Head of RTHK Cheung Man-yee was unavailable for comment, but the station released a statement saying: "As a public-funded body, our prime responsibility is to serve the public. Reporting and analysing government policy is one of our important functions.

"At the same time, we provide sufficient time for the public to air their views. We hope Mr Xu can spend more time listening and watching our programmes."

Cliff Bale of the RTHK Programme Staff Union said staff were concerned about Mr Tung's desire to look into their operation.

"They are worried that after such a study, there's a possibility we will operate differently with more emphasis on reporting positively government policies," he said.

Noting their present editorial independence, Mr Bale said: "We give all views. The Government's and the criticisms. That's our role. We now have to wait and see what Mr Tung actually means."

Mr Lee said RTHK should be allowed to criticise government policies and let people express their views.

"If RTHK is allowed to criticise the Government, it gives a positive sign to the foreign community that Hong Kong still has a free press," he said.

"What Mr Xu wants to do is transplant the communist system into Hong Kong. It will be Hong Kong people who kill Hong Kong, not Beijing."

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