Hong Kong broadcaster fights for press freedom

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The Independent Online
HONG KONG'S public broadcaster has unwittingly moved to the front line in the battle for press freedom under the territory's new order, writes Stephen Vines.

Under attack from pro-Peking hardliners who dislike its independence, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) adopted a defensive position when legislators debated its future last night.

A motion supporting the station's independence was qualified by the legislators who inserted demands for the implementation of controls over the way it is run. The Hong Kong government pledged to provide written guidelines.

Other parts of the media started exercising great caution in reporting Chinese affairs well before the handover of power, but RTHK has maintained its reputation for objectivity.

The media generally have become less afraid of the Chinese government, which has been handling Hong Kong affairs with restraint, but its hardline supporters in the territory appear to be slightly obsessed by RTHK - they are suspicious of an institution modelled on the BBC. The most outspoken opponent of an independent RTHK is the pro-Peking magazine publisher Xu Si-min, who has described the station as a "remnant of British rule".

Unfortunately for RTHK it has received less than firm support from the former colony's head of government, Tung Chee-hwa, who has been equivocal in the face of pressure to turn the station into something resembling China's propaganda broadcasting services. On the one hand he has defended freedom of speech, while on the other he stated that "it is also important for government policies to be positively presented".

Wong Siu-yee, a legislator who often criticises RTHK, has taken the blunt line that because it is owned by the government it needs to follow and propagate the administration's line.

Those wishing to neuter RTHK may however have shot themselves in the foot. Even newspapers considered to be supportive of Peking are backing the station's stance. Yet RTHK journalists have privately expressed fears that they will come under greater control.

Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic Party, said: "I hope this does not signal a desire to transplant the Communist system of propagandist journalism into Hong Kong."