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RTHK’s quick turn from Maverick Voice to an official spokesperson

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RTHK’s quick turn from Maverick Voice to an official spokesperson

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HONG KONG – Shortly after Patrick Li took over as the government-appointed director of the Hong Kong public broadcaster, a number pad appeared outside his office entrance.

In the past, the director’s office was where the staff of the broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, met to voice grievances with management decisions: programming changes, labor disputes. Now, the Lockpad signaled, such complaints were no longer welcome.

For many employees, the closed room was an emblem of the larger transformation sweeping through RTHK, the 93-year-old institution revered by residents as one of the most trusted sources of information in the once-free media landscape. Hong Kong.

The RTHK was once compared to the BBC for its fierce editorial independence. But under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed last year to silence dissent, many say it now looks more like China Central Television, China’s propagandist state broadcaster.

Since Mr. Li’s arrival in March, episodes featuring interviews with government critics have been dropped hours before they air. Historical dramas about the Chinese Communist Party take the prime-time slots. Entire shows were wiped out – with hosts saying it would be their last recording only after recording it.

New editorial guidelines issued in September direct staff members to “help promote” the government’s work “on safeguarding national security.” They must also “be careful in dealing” with foreign governments and “political organizations”. The directives come as Xi Jinping tightens his grip on Hong Kong and China, including during a meeting this week in Beijing.

Carrie Lam, Managing Director of Hong Kong, praised Mr. Li for doing “exactly what I expect from an editor.” Shortly after, Ms Lam announced that she had received her own RTHK talk show.

The RTHK, which fiercely investigated official misconduct during anti-government protests in 2019, has long been expected to come under pressure. Under the security law – imposed to suppress protests – officials dismantled Hong Kong civil society and attacked media deemed hostile.

Still, a dozen current and former employees, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were amazed at the speed and daring of the changes, especially given the broadcaster’s history of pushing back incursions on his independence.

“In the past, there were a lot of checks and balances,” said Tsang Chi-Ho, who co-hosted a longtime satire and radio show before his layoff this summer. Now, “If they cut a program, what can you do?” There is no lawmaker to oppose it, no newspaper to say it is wrong. No one can protest in the street.

“Their goal is to tell everyone: just forget about the RTHK of the past. “

RTHK refused to make Mr. Li available for an interview. In a statement, the broadcaster said he would not comment on internal affairs, but that changes had been made to RTHK’s programming because it had become “a cause of public concern.”

“RTHK is a public service broadcaster but not a government spokesperson,” the statement said. “RTHK aspires to be the most credible source of information and public information for the Hong Kong community.”

To prove the RTHK’s past willingness to flout the government, viewers needed to look no further than Mr. Tsang’s satirical TV show “Headliner”. A recurring skit featured the character of an overbearing Empress, who replaced leaders ranging from Mr. Xi to Ms. Lam. Although the show received complaints from government supporters, key editors isolated staff, Tsang said.

Last year “Headliner” became a harbinger of the new RTHK. Executives suspended the show after Hong Kong police complained about an episode mocking the force.

Months later, police arrested the producer from an investigation into authorities’ late response to a 2019 mob attack on protesters. Then, in February, officials released a report denouncing the RTHK’s “seriously inadequate” editorial practices. They announced that the editor, a senior journalist, would be replaced by Mr. Li, an official with no journalistic training.

Mr. Li immediately began asking producers of new programs or potentially “contentious” episodes to submit detailed proposals to a nine-person steering committee.

The proposal form, according to two people who reviewed the document, asks if any complaints have ever been filed against the producer; for a description of potentially controversial content, including background music; and to obtain information on the guests, including whether they are “known to be associated” with “radical political groups”.

Six shows have ceased airing since Li took over, ranging from a weekly roundtable for social scientists to a nighttime travel and recreation program that gave way to mainland dramas.

Another interrupted show was “The Pulse,” a news show that went viral after a World Health Organization official was asked in an interview whether Taiwan should be a member. (China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, excluded it from the body.)

While recording the last episode of “The Pulse” this summer, host Steve Vines signed off saying, “In these uncertain times, who knows what will happen in the future. But for now. , good bye and good luck.

It was cut before it was broadcast.

Others haven’t even had the chance to try to say goodbye. Leung Kai-chi, who co-hosted the sociologists’ roundtable, received a WhatsApp message at 8:36 p.m. the day before a scheduled recording.

“Management says that starting in July, RTHK Channel 31 will have a whole new campaign, and there will be new programming arrangements,” said the post, which was sent by a producer to the co-hosts and that Mr. Leung shared with Les temps. “We were told to stop production immediately.”

The hosts immediately responded, “Pay attention.

“We understand how much pressure they are under,” Leung said.

The shows still going on are unrecognizable to those who created them.

During Fanny Kwan’s 13 years producing the Hong Kong Connection news program, she regularly shot episodes, interviewing exiled Chinese dissidents and parents of children with autism. But when Mr. Li arrived, the new editorial board vetoed an article about student activists she had been filming for weeks. Two other episodes of colleagues were also deleted.

Ms. Kwan and other producers then developed a strategy on which craft proposals would be accepted, but two other arguments were rejected: one on the commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the other on the follow-up to crowd attack 2019.

Ms. Kwan suspected that the rejections had as much to do with her team as they did with the subjects. Shortly after pushing back his episode of student activism, the executives brought in outside contractors to create their own “Hong Kong Connection” episodes.

While Ms. Kwan and her colleagues waited, sometimes for weeks, to hear their proposals, the new team produced episodes on topics such as electric vehicles and Chinese lion dances.

As of April, only five episodes of “Hong Kong Connection” have been produced by the original crew. No episode addressed political repression.

“This is our story,” Ms. Kwan said of the crackdown. “If Patrick Li hadn’t come, I think we would have been very, very busy.

Another political show, “LegCo Review”, was outsourced after executives accused producers of violating the approval process. A forum with candidates for the December parliamentary elections has been reassigned from the public and current affairs department to infotainment and variety, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

Staying away from politics isn’t a guarantee of approval either.

In August, Kong Yiu-Wing, an artist, received an interview request from an arts program at RTHK about his exhibition “Hong Kongers Archive of 100 Objects”, a collection of artifacts exploring the identity of Hong Kong.

Mr. Kong was worried. Pro-Beijing figures attacked the idea of ​​Hong Kong’s low-profile identity as unpatriotic, and Mr Kong was unsure how the new RTHK would handle the matter.

When he met the producers, they asked technical questions about his process. They didn’t film more politically-tinged artifacts in the exhibit, like copies of pro-Beijing and pro-democracy newspapers, instead focusing on vintage recording material.

The day before the broadcast date, a member of RTHK staff called Mr Kong to tell him that the program had been canceled by supervisors.

“I really didn’t expect this,” Kong said. “Basically every political topic that we could avoid, we have already avoided. “

Mr. Li defended his decisions as “very normal” editorial processes. When meeting with lawmakers in May, he acknowledged the blocking of episodes but said editorial independence did not mean independence for individual production teams.

Even pro-Beijing lawmakers have questioned his approach. “People will fear that what you are doing is a bit of a stretch,” said lawmaker Chan Kin-por.

Most of the staff interviewed said they were drawn to RTHK by its mission. As a public broadcaster, they said, RTHK has often made educational or socially responsible programs that commercial broadcasters would not. Although the funding came from the government, a philosophy was instilled in all new hires: The bosses of RTHK were the people of Hong Kong.

Many journalists have spent their entire careers at RTHK. “People spoke of working for RTHK as a dream job,” said Leung, former social science roundtable moderator.

Now, paranoia invades the headquarters. The new staff guidelines state that all editorial decisions are confidential; infringements may justify a sanction. Communication with superiors must be done through a strict hierarchy; individual producers do not speak directly with the editorial board. Episodes older than a year have been removed from the RTHK website.

About a third of the Public and Current Affairs department is gone. Three senior officials left less than two weeks after Mr. Li’s appointment. Mr. Li has a new deputy – a transfer from the Department of the Navy.

Ms. Kwan of “Hong Kong Connection” also left. In July, she hosted a farewell party with eight other colleagues who had agreed to step down together – in part to avoid having too many farewell events.

For a few months thereafter, Ms. Kwan texted former colleagues still at the station asking how they were doing. Finally, she stopped.

“Because I can feel that nothing has changed there, really,” she said. “Nothing better. Even worse.”

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