Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang sent a letter to the head of the city’s public broadcaster, RTHK, on Wednesday warning that the police would file a complaint with Hong Kong communications authorities over a satirical show’s comedy sketch joking that police were hoarding coronavirus safety gear.
Tang, appointed head of the police force late last year in a response to widespread pro-democracy protests in the city, disparaged the comedy program Headliner for, among other things, not condemning the protests. He also reportedly complained in his letter that the program helped create public misconceptions that police indeed are keeping necessary safety gear from the public.
Hong Kong has logged 105 Chinese coronavirus cases as of Thursday and two deaths. The virus, originating in central Wuhan, China, has prompted waves of protests against the government for not shutting the border to Chinese people to limit the spread of the virus. Hong Kong authorities, controlled by Beijing, insisted it was necessary to maintain traffic flow with China, leading to a major health workers’ strike, firebombings of coronavirus clinics, and ongoing civil disobedience.
“As a public broadcaster, I believe that the programmes produced by your station should reflect the facts and let the general public understand what is happening in society, rather than mislead the audience,” Tang’s letter read in part, as reproduced by RTHK. “Headliner will cause viewers to have a wrong impression and misunderstanding of the police force. If the public loses confidence in the police force, criminals will have a chance to take advantage of it, and Hong Kong’s law and order will be difficult to maintain. This is definitely of major public interest.”
Tang objected not just to the sketch mocking police for allegedly stockpiling face masks, hand sanitizer, and other protective gear, but an older February episode that made light of police dismissing the mysterious deaths of several young people in the vicinity of the pro-democracy protests. Many protesters believe that the Hong Kong police force deliberately killed protesters – or at least put them in deadly positions, such as in the case of Chow Tsz-lok who fell to his death in a parking complex. Police never clarified the young man’s death, but many protesters believe police chased him from a nearby protest into the parking garage where he accidentally fell from the third floor.
At press time, the offending episodes are still available at RTHK’s website.
RTHK has dismissed criticism of Headliner, a satirical show that began airing on RTHK in 1989; a spokesperson affirmed that it was “quite unlikely for any reasonable persons” to interpret a comedy sketch as factual news.
In the aftermath of the airing of the coronavirus episode, pro-communist viewers bombarded Hong Kong’s Communications Authority with complaints. A small number of people organized outside of RTHK headquarters demanding that “heads must roll” over the comedy sketch.
Hong Kong’s government has responded by changing regulations to allow other broadcasters not to air the offending RTHK programs. Under Hong Kong law, broadcasters who did not pay for a broadcasting license are required to air blocks of RTHK programming “in the public interest;” the laws were passed before RTHK itself was a channel, merely producing content broadcast on others. That regulation changed Wednesday, seemingly as a response to the Headliner controversy.
“After considering the free TV licensee’s request and the views of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, the Communications Authority concurs that there is no justifiable case to continue to require commercial broadcasters to broadcast RTHK programmes,” the government said in a statement. “Furthermore, lifting the requirements enables free TV licensees to put the spectrum and airtime released to more efficient use. The timeslots vacated could be used to broadcast other programmes, thereby providing more diversified TV programme choices to the public.”
RTHK officials reportedly argued that the new regulation should require broadcasters not airing RTHK content to pay for a license.
The decision has outraged pro-democracy Hongkongers. In a statement following the decision, Democratic Party lawmaker Roy Kwong accused the police of being behind the move and having “seriously intervened with press freedom.”
Speaking to Radio Free Asia (RFA), journalism professor Bruce Liu said the decision was “definitely against the public interest” as private companies using a public broadcasting utility no longer have to pay any price for the service, even merely airing programs in the public interest.
“Public broadcasters can make more in-depth shows, or those that deal with more politically sensitive topics,” he noted.
The private broadcasters dropped Headliner almost immediately.