Turn on, tune in

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am

Amagistrate ruled on Tuesday that the Telecommunications Ordinance violates the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights. The ordinance was invoked by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority to prosecute operators of an unlicensed radio station, Citizen's Radio. According to existing regulations, applicants for radio broadcasting licences must be permanent residents of Hong Kong who meet the technical requirements of the Broadcasting Authority. Ownership of other media is not allowed.

The decision to award new licences, however, rests entirely with the government. It has, all along, restricted the number of radio services, arguing that there are not enough frequencies. Signal interference is also said to be a worry.

The existing seven FM frequencies are occupied by two commercial radio broadcasters and one public broadcaster. Of the eight AM frequencies, only two are unused. Even if the government issues a new licence, the new operator will only be able to use these two AM frequencies.

The present policy glaringly fails to meet the needs of our time. Conventional media is being challenged by the internet, but radio broadcasting is uniquely placed to work in tandem with it. Through the internet, local radio programmes can be picked up all over the world. Radio also enjoys advantages over other media because of its potential to build community bonds.

The government should no longer use technical excuses to refuse to issue new broadcast licences. The technology has been in place for a long time to divide the seven FM frequencies into 14. With new digital broadcasting technologies, one frequency can be further multiplied into 20. Theoretically, Hong Kong could have up to 280 radio stations.

The liberalisation of radio broadcasting is a global trend. In the US, there are some 16,000 stations. Since Taiwan opened up its broadcasting regime in 1993, more than 170 broadcasters have been beaming programmes over the airwaves. It is expected that, with a proliferation of radio broadcasters, the influence of individual stations will wane. The three major US television networks together account for less than 30 per cent of audience share. Yet, TVB monopolises the Hong Kong market and wields overwhelming influence. Our broadcasting industry is very distorted. Five TV stations, including terrestrial and cable operators, are licensed, but there are only two licensees. RTHK is not required to be licensed. There are, in fact, hundreds of available TV channels, but only 15 radio frequencies. The only plausible explanation for this anomaly is that the government is wary of the influence of radio broadcasters.

But it has been proved elsewhere that, in a burgeoning radio industry, individual broadcasters' influence will be reduced. After the handover, Hong Kong society was a hotbed of discontent, providing fertile soil for radio to mobilise public opinion. But the economy has fully recovered and there is a strong urge for social harmony. Government officials should no longer worry that radio broadcasters will become thorns in their side.

Indeed, radio broadcasts also have to move with the times. Ten years after reunification, Hong Kong has changed beyond recognition and needs a new direction. Only innovative broadcasters will succeed in the future. They should contribute to the building of a new Hong Kong spirit, a caring and knowledge-based society, and an accountable government. They should also shoulder the responsibility of promoting national education and a rich cultural life. Successful broadcasters will be those offering a wide variety of programmes and multiple viewpoints.

After the present consultation exercise concludes, RTHK is expected to be replaced with a public-service broadcaster likely to focus mainly on minority interests, becoming effectively a 'narrowcast'. But public airwaves are community assets, and the government must open up public airwaves and redistribute the existing FM channels. Digital broadcasting should also be introduced. We must face the challenge of a new broadcasting era.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator