First among equals
What if a turbaned Sikh contests September's Legislative Council election, which then prompts a television station to run a caricature of him as a doorman similar to the satirical cartoon of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim on the cover of the New Yorker magazine?
The American media gave the Obama caricature blanket coverage. His images and reaction to the magazine's controversial cover were all over television, radio and newspapers. John McCain, who is competing against Senator Obama for the United States presidency, has not demanded equal media coverage. Had he done so, editors would have shown him the door.
But Hong Kong is different. We are a free and politicised society, a near democracy and a 'wannabe' world city. Yet we have election laws so half-brained, drawn up by officials so ignorant of how the media works, that voters are actually being deprived of their right to know.
What would happen under these rules if our fictitious turbaned Sikh candidate ended up on a TV station's election coverage stereotyped as a doorman? Leaving aside the separate issue of racism, other candidates in the same constituency would have every right under the rules to demand equal air time.
To get around this, the station could include in the Sikh story images of all the other candidates with the footnote that they are not doormen. This may all sound silly and stretched, but it is not an exaggeration. The media faced something very similar to this hypothetical case four years ago when a Legco candidate was caught on the mainland in bed with a prostitute. The media, of course, had to note in its reporting that he was a candidate and a liability to his party.
That made it an election story. Unsure if the equal coverage requirement applied in this case under the stern but vague election rules, editors played it safe by running the pictures and names of all the other candidates in a sex scandal story that had nothing to do with them.
The Electoral Affairs Commission rules are far tougher on the electronic than print media for the senseless reason that you choose to buy a newspaper while the two terrestrial TV stations come to your home free. What about the many free newspapers now available in Hong Kong?
If a candidate breaks a leg falling off a bike and is interviewed by a TV station about campaigning in a wheelchair, not only must the station offer 'equal time' to all other candidates in the constituency, it must also keep detailed records of having done so.
Equal time applies even to candidates who are not taken seriously by voters and have no chance of winning. Many constituencies have over a dozen candidates, some of whom are non-starters. Giving each and every one of these non-starters the same 30-minute coverage as serious candidates on a talk show, for example, is a waste of time, a disservice to viewers and makes a mockery of election coverage.
To play by these impractical rules, some electronic media editors skip all but very general election coverage. This means even serious candidates are bypassed. The rules even bar candidates from placing paid advertisements on radio and television. The campaign season has started for September's election, but don't expect in-depth TV and radio coverage of the candidates. How does that help voters understand them?
Equal time should only apply to formal debates and forums. Routine coverage decisions belong to the editors, not election officials. Aside from RTHK, Hong Kong's radio and TV stations are commercial enterprises operating in a free economy. If supermarkets can decide what to put on their shelves, what right have election officials to tell broadcasters what to put on air?
Hong Kong doesn't even have real democracy and the authorities are already defining what is fair coverage. What's to stop them from skewing future rules in a way that favours them if and when democracy finally arrives?
Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster