Government’s effort to thwart HKTV smacks of politics

Stephen Vines believes most see the move as attempt to control speech

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 1:58am

What is really going on over the government's seemingly remorseless attempts to prevent the public from getting access to Ricky Wong Wai-kay's Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV)?

Let's quickly deal with the latest move to thwart HKTV, in which the administration has insisted that the company needs to apply for a television licence if it is broadcasting to more than 5,000 households.

You can be pretty sure that the bureaucrats will be able to conjure up grounds for this stipulation. Governments are good at finding legal reasons for politically motivated decisions. And there can no longer be a scintilla of doubt that the determination to thwart HKTV is not only political but most likely emanates from instructions issued up north.

Many people, including Wong himself, are puzzled over why this largely entertainment-based channel should have found itself in the eye of a political storm.

As ever, because of the closed-box way this government operates, it is hard to be sure of the reasons. But assumptions can be made.

The most likely explanation is that when the time came for television companies to apply for free-to-air licences, Hong Kong's masters insisted that they should be granted to the two established stations that had proved their loyalty. Additional licences were given to the son of Hong Kong's richest tycoon and to Cable TV, also controlled by Beijing loyalists.

It is unlikely that Wong was seen as some kind of dangerous opponent, but Beijing does not like to take chances with the unknown, especially in the crucial area of broadcasting - or propaganda, as broadcasting is viewed through the prism of the Chinese Communist Party's considerations.

The still unexplained decision to block HKTV's free-to-air licence application released an enormous surge of public anger, and Democrats were prominent among the protesters.

It seems probable that the decision-makers in Beijing saw this as vindication for their initial opposition to the network and thus the underlings in Hong Kong were ordered to tighten the screws on HKTV.

The Broadcasting Ordinance, which is clearly not fit for purpose in the digital age, provided a tool for precisely this purpose. However, its provisions are applied selectively and this brings the rule of law into disrepute.

Lamentably, it is no defence to argue that because others are breaching the letter of the law, a company accused of doing the same thing can be excused.

So HKTV clearly has a legal problem despite Wong's confidence that he can win a court case challenging the Communications Authority's decision. But the real issue is political, and this appears to have been acknowledged by most Hong Kong people, who clearly understand that government attempts to thwart new voices in the media are part of an attempt to impose wider controls on freedom of speech.

While all this is going on, we have seen the vicious attack on the former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to.

Suspects are now being rounded up in this case, but the police chief has already announced that while the motives for the attack remain unclear, he is confident that it had nothing to do with Lau's journalistic activities.

This is a breathtaking assertion, reflecting a worrying mentality.

Meanwhile, some companies have been accused of mounting an advertising boycott campaign to try to undermine the commercial viability of critical media.

What we are seeing is a slowly unfolding attack on Hong Kong's way of life, aided by a government that claims to understand the importance of a free media while, in reality, it is leading the charge to ensure that the media is curbed.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur