Why we must put our differences on the table
Every day of the week, RTHK runs a programme propagating a minority belief. Although these broadcasts are not prefaced by warnings that their content might upset some listeners, they have not elicited angry protests. The Broadcasting Authority has withheld sanctimonious judgment and there has been no visit by a senior official to the director of broadcasting to ensure that he is adhering to 'the relevant codes of practice'.
I refer, of course, to the daily Radio 4 broadcasts of Christian homilies and prayers. Like the majority of people in Hong Kong, I am not a Christian, but I rejoice in the diversity of the special administrative region and the tolerance shown to minority opinions and faiths that allows them to secure a regular airing on a government-owned radio station.
Even though I sometimes listen to these broadcasts, they have not persuaded me to adopt Christianity nor am I convinced by some of the moral arguments advanced. In other words, it is quite possible to be subject to propaganda without being swayed.
However, an ever-vigilant group of Christian bigots seems to believe that the very act of broadcasting beliefs other than their own will, in itself, lead to the adoption of a lifestyle they dislike and an acceptance of practices they consider abhorrent. It should be stressed, however, that they are not representative of the whole Christian community.
They seem to be particularly obsessed with any mention of homosexuality, a way of life pursued by another minority in Hong Kong. Unlike Christianity, homosexuality is less a matter of conviction than of inborn sexual orientation. Yes, I know there is vigorous debate on whether this is so, but the overwhelming force of research suggests that homosexuality is not a matter of choice but a question of biology. That finding seems to be confirmed with amusing regularity by the exposure of leading Christian fundamentalists who engage in homosexual acts, despite their alleged religious convictions.
Yet, fundamentalist Christians and others who feel that homosexuality 'goes against nature' should be free to express their views, however imbecilic they may be. What is infinitely more worrying is the subtle, and not so subtle, ways in which the Hong Kong government seeks to give them credence.
The often unimpressive Broadcasting Authority seems to be particularly attentive to these fundamentalists. While it stopped short of accepting their more absurd claims about the broadcast of an RTHK programme including a segment titled Gay Lovers, it nevertheless ruled that it should not have been shown during a peak family viewing time. It also said that it promoted acceptance of homosexual marriages.
Instead of retreating into an expected posture of servile contrition, RTHK said that the ruling was 'unfair, partial and biased', and failed to apologise. At this point, Joseph Wong Wing-ping, the minister responsible for broadcasting, stepped in and arranged a hurried visit to the director of broadcasting to, so he said, ensure 'RTHK fulfils its responsibilities'.
I have yet to see Mr Wong scurrying around town to berate broadcasters who permit the airing of homophobic views nor to berate newspaper editors who allow these sentiments to appear in their publications. It would be worrying if he did so because freedom of expression entails the right to air obnoxious views, as long as they fall within the law. Why, then, is he so anxious to prevent RTHK from publicly defending itself against accusations which it deems to be unfair? The public is quite sophisticated enough to judge whether RTHK's stance is reasonable and to protest if it does not feel this is the case.
But let us not forget the subject of the original complaints; it was a programme discussing the legalisation of homosexual marriage, an issue that is widely debated throughout the world. Maybe RTHK should have gone the extra distance to secure greater participation from those opposed to relationships of this kind. But as a presenter of another RTHK public affairs TV programme, I know just how difficult it is to get people with views like this to participate. I can say without the slightest fear of contradiction that it is close to impossible to secure an interview with government officials on this subject.
There is, therefore, a danger of one-sidedness in a programme like this. But the very people who make this accusation are loath to redress the balance by appearing to defend their views. They simply want to ensure that views other than their own are banned from the airwaves.
The government's position in all of this is admittedly complex. On the one hand it regularly expresses its opposition to discrimination on grounds of race, sex or sexual orientation, while on the other moving only timidly to legislate against discrimination. It has edged forward in areas of sexual and racial discrimination but is loath to make any move that would outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
It is reluctant to even discuss the removal of barriers to furnishing same-sex partners with legal rights and has adopted the petty position of barring overseas diplomatic missions in Hong Kong from conducting same-sex unions among their own nationals in accordance with the laws of the countries they represent.
Hopefully, the government is more intolerant than the people, because a community that cannot accept the inevitable differences among its members will never be truly comfortable in its own skin.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur