Wolves in sheep's clothing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2005, 12:00am

Press freedom and freedom of speech have long been recognised as core values of Hong Kong society. They should be preserved at all costs, because they are the foundations of all other forms of civil liberties.

However, issues such as the Basic Law Article 23 fiasco and the obstacles that Commercial Radio met in renewing its licence have shown that there has been a stubborn, ultra-conservative political force desperate to bring the media, especially the electronic ones, under its control.

Instead of safeguarding freedom of expression, the Broadcasting Authority has become a willing partner in this clandestine endeavour to tame the media. It is an open secret that some political groups have been churning out complaints against certain talk-show hosts and their programmes.

The authority has used these so-called public complaints as a pretext to bully the media. It has been despatching advice, warnings and demands for an explanation to the stations almost indiscriminately.

Recently, radio and TV stations have again received intimidating judgments from the authority. Commercial Radio hosts Raymond Wong Yuk-man and Tsao Chip have become the latest and most conspicuous targets. The two are known for their scathing comments on the communist regime and the local government.

Their programmes are, in fact, put under the category of 'personal opinions', in which listeners are free to call, or fax in to state their disapproval of the hosts' views during the shows. Even if they are biased, the hosts should be allowed to speak their minds in the true spirit of freedom of speech.

The 12-member authority is meant to be an independent statutory watchdog. But a casual look at the political stances and affiliations of most of its members will reveal why some of them are keen to use any pretext to apply political pressure on programme hosts whose views are too progressive for them to stomach.

The reality is that the authority has been reduced to a political tool to curtail freedom of speech. Take the case of its chairman, Daniel Fung Wah-kin. A member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, he has a strong pro-Beijing leaning and did not even pretend to stay neutral in the controversies over major political issues.

The vice-chairman is Francis Ho Suen-wai, Permanent Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology. Two other civil servants - Deputy Secretary of Home Affairs Stephen Fisher and Director-General of Telecommunications Au Man-ho - are also ex officio members. They are bound to stand by the government.

Other members, Carlye Tsui Wai-ling and Felix Fong Wo, are both affiliated with the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. The latter is also a delegate to Guangdong province's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Another member, Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon, is the head of the department of economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. During the public outcry against Beijing's move to interpret the Basic Law, he repeatedly wrote to the press to lash out at the liberal Article 45 Concern Group.

The strong political proclivities of some authority members have already undermined the watchdog's credibility. The only remedy is a thorough shake-up of its membership. Politically unbiased figures can be injected to boost its sagging public image.

The Broadcasting Authority Complaints Committee, in particular, must re-establish the principle that freedom of speech should come before any other considerations in its deliberations. It must exercise self-restraint, and refrain from meddling with the mass media. Or else, it will only end up catching a tiger by its tail.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator