The election regulator has waded into a row involving ATV over claims of manipulation linked to the Legislative Council election this weekend, while the broadcasting watchdog has been flooded by over 40,000 e-mails.
At the centre of the dispute is news commentary programme ATV Focus, that claimed on Monday that student-activist group Scholarism, now staging protests against national education in schools, was a pawn controlled by a "destructive" political camp to boost poll support on Sunday.
The Communications Authority said yesterday it had received more than 40,000 e-mails - roughly four times the number of complaints received on Tuesday - and it believed most of the messages were complaints against the television programme.
Complainants say the content of the show was untrue and biased, smeared Scholarism and may have breached election rules.
Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said he believed the Registration and Electoral Office would follow up the situation and handle any complaint solemnly. "In election regulations, there are principles saying that the media should cover election news fairly, impartially and equally," he said.
Selina Li Yuk-lin, a part-time lecturer at Chinese University's School of Journalism and Communication, said the government should rethink the renewal of ATV's broadcasting licence.
Li resigned from the station in 1994 to protest against its decision not to run a documentary on the June 4, 1989 crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
"Free-to-air television is different from a newspaper," she said. "It uses the public radio spectrum. So it has a responsibility to speak for the public, not for the boss."
ATV declined to comment on the surge in number of complaints. It said on Tuesday that freedom of expression and of the press should not be infringed.
The election office said it would not comment on any individual case. It said it would handle complaints, if any, according to standard procedure.