TVB's gag on Next Media infringes press freedom

Albert Cheng says politically aware Hongkongers must protest against the dominant broadcaster's use of public assets to target Next Media

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 November, 2013, 6:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 3:12am

The controversy over the Hong Kong Television Network licensing issue that led to a boycott of TVB's anniversary special last week may have puzzled some people. But, in fact, it was inevitable.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying decided not to grant a licence to HKTV, going against the recommendation of the Office of the Communications Authority that all three applicants of a free-to-air TV licence be granted one.

Despite this bitter lesson, TVB still failed to learn from its mistakes and shifted the blame

Leung moved the goalposts and chose two out of the three applicants, leaving HKTV out in the cold.

On the surface, the reasons for his decision seem to have been that HKTV doesn't have the financial capability to run a sustainable business, and also that the market cannot accommodate five free-to-air TV stations.

But, obviously, the real reason is that the government prefers TVB to remain dominant in the local TV market. It doesn't want to risk allowing the proactive and innovative management of HKTV to change the game plan. In other words, it doesn't want HKTV to rock the boat.

The other two applicants seem unlikely to compete head-on with TVB. Only Ricky Wong Wai-kay's HKTV had set its sights on challenging TVB's market leadership.

Even before the licence decisions were made, HKTV was already jostling for position and poaching stars and production staff from TVB.

Had HKTV got a licence, it would undoubtedly have posed a threat to TVB and challenged its long-term monopoly.

Not only would that hit TVB's profits, it would also affect its position to act as the mouthpiece for the establishment and Beijing. It would effectively break the propaganda machine for the Hong Kong administration as well as the central government.

At the moment, no other media outlet is capable of challenging the dominance of TVB, including ATV, which has been the underdog for years, despite the fact that it has financial backing.

From the point of view of maintaining the status quo, it's logical that HKTV wasn't awarded a licence.

That's why Hongkongers who are politically alert placed some of the blame on TVB and boycotted the station's anniversary show.

And if the station's senior management had the political intellect to comprehend the seriousness of the matter, they wouldn't have allowed presenter and actor Nat Chan Pak-cheung to act as spokesman and challenge the public, saying that the boycott would be ineffective.

In the end, the loser was TVB, which saw its overall ratings for the show drop below 30 points for the first time in a decade.

The worst thing is that, despite this bitter lesson, TVB's management still failed to learn from their mistakes and shifted the blame to others, such as Next Media, accusing it of bias. TVB then announced it would ban Next Media and its reporters from its press conferences and events.

TVB's action not only goes against the principles of press freedom and freedom of expression, it also infringes the operating principles of a free-to-air TV station. TVB is using public airwaves; hence, it has no right to ban the media from entering its premises to cover the news.

The station is setting a very bad precedent. By volunteering to gag another media organisation, it seems to be doing the government's dirty work without even being asked.

The Nat Chan episode may have seemed like a farce to many people, but I believe it was all meticulously planned, to create a good excuse to target Next Media.

It's just the beginning, because Next Media is only the guinea pig for TVB to see how far this tactic could go in the future.

Strangely, Next Media seems reluctant to retaliate or speak up against this injustice. It has reacted in a rather strange manner, saying that, despite the ban by TVB, it could still get information and report on its performing artists.

The low-key editorial treatment of TVB's ban by Apple Daily editor Cheung Kim-hung has drawn criticism from within the newsroom and its senior management. Apple Daily is part of Next Media.

In fact, the ban by TVB not only concerns Next Media; it sets a dangerous precedent for the entire local media landscape. If we don't protest and fight back, it will slowly erode our freedom of expression and press freedom - both of which are core values that have made Hong Kong what it is today.

As a TV station that uses public airwaves, TVB is using public assets to fight media organisations that it deems unfriendly.

What if other public organisations follow suit and ban unfriendly media?

The people of Hong Kong must put aside whatever negative sentiment they have about Next Media, because this is not about that organisation; it is a "life and death" situation for our future media landscape.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.