A government-sponsored advertisement promoting a new national security law in Hong Kong. | Bloomberg
A government-sponsored advertisement promoting a new national security law in Hong Kong. | Bloomberg
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Nabela Qoser was the face of the thriving media industry in multicultural Hong Kong. A Hong Konger of Pakistani descent, Nabela became the first Cantonese language news reporter of a non-Chinese heritage.

Her employer Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the special administrative region’s public broadcaster, has now decided not to renew her contract. Many say that Nabela’s contract was cancelled because of her tough questioning of the government officials during the 2019 pro-democracy protest movement.

On 8 May, pro-Beijing group Politihk Social Strategic staged a protest outside the RTHK office holding a racist banner that read “India needs Nabela Qoser. Save the people, save the press freedom”.

Hong Kong’s public broadcaster has come under pressure from the government for its reporting on the pro-democracy movement and questioning Beijing’s excesses.

Hong Kong’s media industry plays a unique role in shaping the wider world of Chinese language media. A stricter control may give Beijing access to a new tool of influencing the narrative about China.


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The media gag

Hong Kong bureaucrat Patrick Li Pak-chuen was appointed as the top boss of RTHK on 1 March. Li replaced veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing who stepped down just before the release of a report critical of the broadcaster.

According to South China Morning Post (SCMP), Li ordered the “plug be pulled” on the current affairs show Legco Review, which featured guests discussing electoral changes made by Beijing. Li is said to have stopped production of several other shows that wouldn’t fit into the new narrative that Beijing is trying to create in Hong Kong.

A score of senior employees such as talk show host Brian Chow have quit RTHK after Patrick Li’s appointment.

The Hong Kong government had accused RTHK of violating the “one-China principle” after one of their journalists asked World Health Organization’s Bruce Aylward about Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly.

RTHK announced on 3 May that TV shows older than a year would be removed from YouTube and Facebook. The action was seen as an attempt to wipe the content related to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement of 2019.

On 12 February, RTHK followed Beijing’s decision to ban BBC’s broadcast on mainland China by cancelling radio relay of the World Service in Hong Kong.

“RTHK is a public broadcaster which has over the years produced programmes which we all love. But RTHK is also a public department, whether it is a government department or a public broadcaster, it has to follow rules and regulations,” said Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam.

Bao Choy, a freelance producer, was found guilty of investigating vehicle licence plates of those involved in Yuen Long mob attacks of 2019 at the peak of pro-democracy protests, and fined HK$6,000 by a Hong Kong court. The case was widely condemned by the news media fraternity in Hong Kong.

Before joining RTHK, Nabela worked for TVB and Ming Pao, two Chinese-language media outlets, which had represented a thriving media industry serving ethnic Chinese in Asia – around the world.

Trouble is also brewing at Phoenix Media Network, which is world’s largest Chinese-language broadcaster.

In April, the chairman of Phoenix Media, Liu Changle, announced that he will sell his stake to Beijing-backed publisher Bauhinia Culture Holdings and to Pansy Ho’s company Shun Tak Holdings Ltd. Pansy Ho is a Canadian citizen and Hong Kong resident, and the daughter of Macau billionaire businessman Stanley Ho.

Liu Changle’s son-in-law, He Xin, has been detained by police in Hainan province for his role in a failed peer-to-peer money lending platform. Some have speculated about the link between the detention and the sale of stake in Phoenix Media by Liu Changle.

Phoenix Media’s directors have been replaced by three individuals who have in the past worked closely with Beijing. Hong Kong’s Chinese language media wasn’t ever entirely free. The media houses were influenced by the United Front Work department’s activities in Hong Kong. But these new appointments suggest that Beijing wants to exert direct influence over the media industry in Hong Kong.


Also read: Xi’s China has big tech and science plans. But is looking worldwide for talent


Pressure on Maa

The print media industry in Hong Kong was already suffering because of the decline in revenue from advertising. But SCMP is one of the major news outlets that has continued to hire staff despite these challenges – largely made possible by support from billionaire businessman Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group that owns the English newspaper.

In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had asked Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding to divest its stake in media assets. Besides the ownership of SCMP, Alibaba Group also owns a $3.5 billion stake in Twitter-like social media platform, Sina Weibo.

“Be assured that Alibaba’s commitment to SCMP remains unchanged and continues to support our mission and business goals”, an internal memo by SCMP’s chief executive Gary Liu said.

“Only by achieving ‘patriots ruling Hong Kong’ can the central government’s overall governance of the special administrative region be effectively implemented, the constitutional order established by the Constitution and the Basic Law can be effectively maintained, various deep-seated problems can be effectively resolved, and Hong Kong can be realised” said President Xi Jinping in April during a video conference with Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

Major international media organisations such as The New York TimesThe Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have moved some of their journalists out of Hong Kong. The international media outlets have set up their new bases in Taipei or Seoul.

Beijing’s national security law and the new Hong Kong election law have strengthened Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong. The media remains largely free to criticise Hong Kong’s government and Beijing’s outreach. That may not last for too long.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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