The free-to-air TV license saga: Is Hong Kong still enjoying the promised autonomy?

The issue of Censorship is never too far away from a discussion about China but its dealings with the television networks in Hong Kong has forced many to reassess their views about the state’s decision making, as Cherie Chan Cheuk Yin investigates.

The debate about the licensing of free-to-air television networks has been going on in Hong Kong for almost a month. Since the government has turned down the application of the anticipated channel – Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), the public has shown their disappointment on social media. Facebook pages that support HKTV and comments about the unjustified decision by the government have gone viral.

With immense public backing for a disclosure of the selection process held by the executive council, the Hong Kong government released a six-page explanation for its decision not to grant HKTV a license. This document however, appears to be just a lie full of unconvincing excuses.

In Hong Kong there are currently two free-to-air television networks – Television Broadcasts Limited(TVB) and Asia Television Limited(ATV). ATV has long been regarded as the mouthpiece for the Chinese government, as most of their news programmes are perceived as propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and most of the members in its executive board have close connection with the party. Since the pro-communist stance is not embraced in the same way by the people of Hong Kong, TVB then become almost the monopoly in the market. However, without any market competition and motivation, TVB has been criticised for making no effort in improving its quality of production. People have been complaining about the poor quality of entertainment programs, and the biased opinions in programmes related to social issues. According to a research done by the University of Hong Kong, more than half of the interviewees supported HKTV being licensed as a free channel, in the belief that the general public can enjoy a higher quality of media production.

Media Control by the Chinese Government?

However, television, apart from the role of providing entertainment, is an important means for communication and information flow in society. It can control to what extent the public is informed and it also has the power of manipulating publics’ opinions. Media then, is an important means for keeping “social stability” for the ruling party. The licensing of the new channel – HKTV, which is not under the government’s control, has become more of a political decision than for the entertainment of the people.

There has been speculation that the Chinese Communist Party is the one behind the scene who made the decision to kick out HKTV, because the owner of HKTV – Ricky Wong – has been an opponent of the party. Before he officially applied for the license, he mentioned that his aim was to create a real “Hong Kong channel”, one that voices the opinions of Hong Kong people, one that is run not under the influence of Chinese government. This has then become a movement not just about TV, but also about freedom of speech and political independence.

It’s more than a fight for a free-channel

Under the principal of “one country two-systems”, Hong Kong is entitled to enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong’s government abides by its own constitutional document – the Basic Law, and we have an independent judiciary and legislative system.

However, in recent years, there has been an increasing interference by the Communist Party in different levels of the political systems. The most controversial issues include the proposal of the anti-subversion law in Hong Kong’s constitution (Basic Law) and the suggested implementation of a compulsory national education. The rejection for granting license for a largely supported channel this time is seen as another case that fills the tension between the unsettling Hong Kong people and the Hong Kong government, as well as the Chinese government.

After the announcement that HKTV failed to get the license, the company had no choice but to lay off hundreds of people they have already employed. These employees started a protest at the government headquarter for more than 20 days. They organized another protest in which they invited everyone who supported HKTV to join. On 6 November, more than 50,000 people protested outside the government headquarters. Participants included academics and people who work in media and communications. These people came not just for getting a free channel they want, they said, but also because if they succumbed to the authoritarian political power, they feared they will never get the democracy back.

The government has not given an answer to the decision, and the document concerning the selection process is not disclosed to the public yet. In a talk that Ricky gave after the result was released, an academic told Ricky, “This is not merely tragedy for your company, it is the tragedy for Hong Kong people.” What more can the Hong Kong people do? If the Hong Kong government chose to turn a blind eye on the public opinions, and continue its rule with no accountability to the citizens. After all, the chef executive is not chosen by the people, neither are the members of the executive council.

Are protests powerful enough to sustain Hong Kong’s autonomy?


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