An insult to the media - and voters
Now that a new session of the Legislative Council has begun, it is necessary to focus public attention on this question: should Hong Kong's media be its own master in the next election?
What makes this issue pressing is that the government's rules about equal coverage are so restrictive that the electronic media, in particular, found it virtually impossible to practise free journalism leading up to last month's poll.
The rules, in effect, allowed the government to dictate to local television and radio stations how the election should be covered. Rather than give in to this interference of what the government touts as a free media, some editors who found it impractical to follow the rules chose to give only limited coverage to the election campaign, rather than break the law. That deprived voters of a source of valuable information that could have helped them reach an informed decision on who to vote for.
The fair-play rules appear superficially laudable. They require the electronic media to give equal coverage to registered candidates leading up to the election and on election day. If an editor decides to give candidate A in a particular constituency a 30-second exposure or a soundbite on a particular day, then every other candidate in that constituency must be given equal time, whether or not he or she has anything newsworthy to say.
When Democratic Party candidate Alex Ho Wai-to's detention on the mainland for consorting with a prostitute became public just weeks before the election, electronic media editors faced the ridiculous dilemma of either ignoring this news, or giving equal coverage to all the other candidates in his constituency. How do you give equal time to candidates who were not caught with prostitutes or have nothing to say on the issue? Lacking clear guidelines, editors who did not want to get into trouble with the Electoral Affairs Commission ran the names and pictures of all other candidates in Mr Ho's constituency, candidates who were not involved in any way with prostitution on the mainland. It was a bizarre, time-wasting and worthless exercise that had to be repeated every time a station ran a story on Mr Ho's predicament. Equal coverage, in its practical sense, applies when candidates are assembled to debate the issues, and to a lesser degree when editors seek out candidates for comment on a particular issue. But equal coverage becomes especially ludicrous when one candidate makes news that has nothing to do with the election.
Why impose these rules so strictly on the electronic but not the print media? The unconvincing reason is that television comes free to your home and you are stuck with it, whereas you can choose to buy whatever newspaper you want.
Hong Kong may be alone in the world with such strict election rules on equal coverage. Election Affairs Commission chairman, Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing, is proud of this, noting that in Britain, for example, the media pays scant attention to candidates from the smaller parties. The implication is that the media must impose on the electorate even candidates with no hope of winning.
Under these rules, Ralph Nader, of the Reform Party, would have to be included in the presidential debates in the US. But he is not, because he has not earned enough voter support to be taken seriously.
By imposing these rules, the government insults Hong Kong's media by implying that editors do not know their business. When candidates do not make news, you cannot force-feed them on the electorate. It is up to the candidates to say and do things to advance their campaigns.
In many democracies, not only are there no equal-coverage rules, the media is actually free to endorse candidates. Whether that is suitable for Hong Kong is another issue, but an equal-coverage law is unfair to candidates and an insult to the electorate. It is also government-imposed social engineering.
Michael Chugani is the chief editor of ATV English News and Current Affairs