Hong Kong television broadcaster RTHK announced on Tuesday that it would indefinitely suspend production of Headliner, a comedy show that has aired since 1989, after the government began harassing the channel over a law enforcement parody in February.
RTHK’s news service initially revealed on Tuesday that the government’s Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) issued the network a “list of demands including a full review of its editorial system, an apology, and disciplinary action against any staff found to have committed mistakes or ‘negligence.'” The list of demand also specifically protested the offending comedy skit on Headliner, which jokingly implied that police were hoarding protective gear against the Chinese coronavirus.
An excerpt from the list of demands claimed that the network – a public broadcaster – “has been repeatedly ruled to have breached the various provisions in the [Television Programme] Code, including failure to ensure the accuracy of the factual contents in the programme; remarks and content regarded as hate speech, denigrating and insulting the police; and failure to include a sufficiently broad range of views in the personal view programme.”
The letter demanded a “full review” of Headliner‘s production and an apology for the jokes at the police’s expense.
Shortly thereafter, RTHK published the apology and announced the review.
“A spokeswoman said RTHK accepts Tuesday’s ruling by the Communications Authority and will seriously follow up on the body’s findings,” the broadcaster’s news service relayed. “The spokeswoman said the public broadcaster would like to apologise to any police officers or others who have been offended, or who are dissatisfied with the station’s output.”
The suspension will come into effect at the end of Headliner‘s current season. It is not clear if RTHK will subsequently cancel the show or replace staff with writers less likely run afoul of the pro-Chinese central government.
The comedy sketch that led to the suspension of the program aired in February and featured a comedian dressed as a police officer. Hong Kong officials complained that the sketch equated police with garbage because it featured a “policeman” emerging out of a dumpster to begin the sketch. The officer also appears to be hoarding medical protective gear at the expense of health workers and jokes about denying police brutality against pro-democracy protesters.
“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,” Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang wrote in a letter sent to RTHK in March. “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.”
Hong Kong appointed Tang its police chief in November in response to widespread peaceful protests against Beijing’s attempts to impose Communist Party laws on the island. Tang is widely considered “more hawkish” than predecessor Stephen Lo and oversaw a significant escalation in police brutality against pro-democracy protesters.
Shortly after the sketch aired, Headliner’s presenter Wong He insisted that there was nothing untoward about the comedy bit.
“If it’s now a crime to tell a story based on the facts, then it’s not just the people at Headliner who need to worry,” Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoted Wong as saying. Wong told RFA that satire was necessary “to make those in power who did wrong feel very uncomfortable: to make them stop and think and maybe even mend their ways.”
It is not clear at press time what RTHK will broadcast instead of Headliner once its season is over.
The move follows weeks of Hong Kong’s government escalating its repression of dissenting voices, a move itself responding to the return of pro-democracy protests as Chinese coronavirus restrictions ease up. Chief Executive Carrie Lam tasked the Hong Kong Legislative Council, which recently came back into session, with passing a bill that criminalizes “disrespect” of the Chinese Communist Party anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” The bill, mirroring Communist Party law, allows up to three years in prison for such disrespect. Pro-Chinese lawmakers brawled with their pro-democracy counterparts this week as they wrestled, in some cases, literally, the power of organizing the legislative docket from their peers.
Despite the reduction in the number of domestically transmitted coronavirus cases, Lam’s government also announced this week that a restriction on gatherings of more than eight people would be extended for 14 days, ending on June 5. June 4 is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, which tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have commemorated with a candlelight vigil since 1990, the year after it occurred. Government officials insisted the restrictions were not intended to silence political dissent against the violent Chinese government.