Spiralling towards silence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am

The public sphere for free speech shrank further when Commercial Radio abruptly sacked popular and outspoken talk-show host Wong Yuk-man.

Despite what Commercial Radio says, Wong's case is much more than just a labour dispute. Lecturer Ivan Choi Chi-keung has claimed that outspokenness no longer has a market in Hong Kong. The days of red-hot talk-back shows, he said, are gone. But he has missed the point.

What is really at stake is freedom of speech. Unlike other enterprises, commercial broadcasters are given a government licence to ride the public airwaves, and are thus expected to fulfil their social obligations and safeguard freedom of speech.

Commercial Radio's move makes no commercial sense, either. According to news reports, the tally of listeners for breakfast current-affairs talk shows dropped by 200,000 after several popular hosts were silenced. Both the ratings and advertising income for Commercial Radio have plummeted.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal is now the only remaining independent news organisation in the Chinese media landscape. The other print and electronic media have revised their editorial policies to a greater or lesser degree, to fend off opposing views and appease the authorities. Some media owners have even exploited their positions to cultivate business relationships in mainland China and pursue their own hidden agendas.

Commercial Radio's current failure to safeguard freedom of speech has made the role of RTHK as a public broadcaster even more critical. RTHK is now wasting the public airwaves by using more than one waveband to carry some of its programmes throughout the day. The arrangement is not due to any technical considerations, such as using different frequencies to cover different areas.

The redundant wavebands could be put to better use by accommodating popular hosts who have been taken off the air. Apart from Wong, RTHK should invite former hosts - such as Peter Lam Yuk-wah, Claudia Mo Man-ching and Leung Man-tao - to at least take turns going on air. Such an arrangement would be well received, and would help bolster RTHK's role as a public broadcaster that can make up for what the commercial stations have failed to achieve.

This is not to compromise RTHK's editorial independence. The proposal is to prevent RTHK from further squandering the bandwidths entrusted to it. Members of the public have every right to demand that RTHK, which is funded by taxpayers' money, open its doors wider to different viewpoints. Inaction is tantamount to connivance. Wong's case has made it even more urgent for RTHK to do some soul-searching and come up with an immediate action plan for reform.

The democrats in the Legislative Council found the case so disturbing that we staged a protest against Commercial Radio on Thursday. We will host a candle-light sit-in at Chater Garden in Central next Saturday. Citizens who care about freedom of speech are welcome to join us.

In a joint statement, the pro-democratic councillors made three points. First, freedom of speech is a cornerstone of Hong Kong's sustained development, and Wong's sacking has triggered widespread public concern.

Second, Commercial Radio is duty-bound to fulfil its social responsibilities by defending freedom of speech and assuming the role of a government watchdog.

Third, it is legitimate to question the radio station's real motives in driving popular hosts off the air, especially when this so conspicuously violates commercial principles. The latest case has resulted in a spiral of silence, seriously eroding freedom of speech. We find this deeply regrettable.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator and former radio talk-show host