ATV - Asia Television Limited

Vital freedoms in perils?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2007, 12:00am

The academic community has been rocked by claims that senior government officials tried to gag dissent at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Institute vice-president Bernard Luk Hung-kay accused the secretary for Education and Manpower, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, of pressuring the institute to merge with Chinese University.

He also said a senior official had asked the institute to sack four academics for writing articles critical of the government's education reforms.

These accusations touched a raw nerve because any attempts to undermine Hong Kong's core values - including freedom of expression, academic freedom and institutional autonomy - would set alarm bells ringing.

There was a furore in 2000 after Hong Kong University pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu claimed that the then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, had interfered with his polling work. The HKU council ordered an inquiry, which led to the resignation of vice-chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung.

That incident showed that the public has zero tolerance for interference with academic freedom. Thus Professor Luk's allegations must be investigated. The Legislative Council's education panel will hold a special meeting on February 28 to discuss the subject.

Another core value is press freedom. Yet, while the Institute of Education incident attracted wide media attention, a recent occurrence at Asia Television was almost completely ignored. On February 4, the pro-Beijing ATV cancelled the airing of an episode of Newsline on the chief executive election, citing 'technical difficulties'. Newsline is an English-language political chat show that airs on Sundays.

The programme's two guests were Allen Lee Peng-fei, a delegate to the National People's Congress, and Albert Ho Chun-yan, a legislator and chairman of the Democratic Party. Asked later if he knew why the show had been cancelled, Mr Lee said: 'I think you know what happened ... I understand a lot of people know what happened.'

ATV then broadcast the programme last Sunday. The reason for the abrupt cancellation may never be revealed. ATV might have come under pressure from the Hong Kong government or the central government's liaison office. Maybe ATV exercised self-censorship because it did not want to offend either government.

ATV recently sold 22 per cent of its shares to Citic Guoan Group, a company partly owned by Citic Pacific, a major mainland-based investment group. The transaction could breach Hong Kong broadcasting law, which bars non-local shareholders from owning more than 10 per cent of a local free-to-air television station - except with the approval of the chief executive.

Legco's panel on broadcasting has raised this with the administration and is awaiting a reply.

The Newsline incident preceded the publication of a survey on press freedom by the Hong Kong Journalists Association on Saturday, in which 58.4 per cent of responding journalists said press freedom had deteriorated since the 1997 handover.

Respondents cited the government's tighter grip on the flow of information and self-censorship: the tendency to downplay negative news about the central government, or news that the media suspects Beijing may regard as sensitive.

Like the threat to academic freedom, the problem of media self-censorship should be widely discussed.

Without a free and independent news media, the public's access to information would be undermined, and the operation of the government and big business would become even less transparent and accountable.

Emily Lau Wai-hing is a legislative councillor for The Frontier