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HKTV row sends Hong Kong government's ratings to all-time low

HKTV licence row turns voters off the administration, with satisfaction even lower than 2003 at time of mass protest against national security law

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 4:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 4:29am

Hongkongers' satisfaction with their government has fallen to an all-time low and public outrage over free-television licensing is partly to blame, a University of Hong Kong pollster says.

Public sentiment is now lower than in 2003, when seething anger over the proposed Article 23 national security law led to a 500,000-strong march, an index compiled by the HKU public opinion programme shows.

The government, meanwhile, sought to fend off accusations of a policy change that allegedly contributed to its decision to grant licences to only two instead of all three applicants.

The decision left Hong Kong Television Network, chaired by high-profile investor Ricky Wong Wai-kay, out of the market, causing tens of thousands of people to protest at the government headquarters in Admiralty last week.

"Recent major events, especially the issuance of free-television licences, are of course closely related to the changes in the Public Sentiment Index," said Edward Tai Chit-fai, senior data analyst for the programme.

The index, compiled every two weeks to gauge the likelihood of collective action by the public, fell to 62.2 on a scale of 0-200 between October 14 and 27.

Part of the data was collected at the height of a public uproar after the government's October 15 announcement that it was rejecting HKTV's application.

The latest score was down 11.9 points from the 74.1 points recorded earlier in the month.

It broke the record of 63.8 points posted in July 2003, when half a million people took to the streets against the government of chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

October's monthly average was 68.1 - 6.4 points lower than in September and a 10-year low.

In an attempt to calm critics, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau reinstated a statement on its website yesterday stressing there was no cap on the number of free-television licences that could be granted.

It came a month after the statement was quietly removed from an article titled "Television Broadcasting in Hong Kong". It read: "The government carried out a comprehensive television policy review in 1998, and subsequently opened up the television market in 2000. There is no ceiling on the number of licences to be granted, subject to physical or technological constraints."

Internet users discovered earlier this week that the paragraph was deleted in September.

HKTV staff members saw the omission as an indication of a policy change that paved the way for the rejection of their application while allowing licences for subsidiaries of existing pay-TV operators i-Cable and PCCW.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung said his colleagues were only trying to avoid "repeating" a message found in other government papers.

"It doesn't mean any changes in our policy, which has always been without a ceiling on the number of free-to-air television licences," he said. "In response to concerns in the mass media, I have instructed my colleagues to put the sentence back."

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who met the media with So, stepped in when the commerce minister was asked to elaborate on the rationale behind the deletion. "We will answer questions about free-television licences on some other occasion," he said.

Meanwhile, the General Chamber of Commerce said it decided two weeks ago to postpone indefinitely a seminar today at which Wong was to speak. It declined to explain further.