Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on Tuesday morning insisted the Executive Council’s confidentiality rules should be maintained despite Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) staff demands that the government explain why the company’s application for a free-to-air TV licence was rejected.
“The Executive Council is always dubbed as [an equivalent] to the cabinets of other governments around the world,” Leung said on Tuesday morning, speaking before an Exco meeting at Government Headquarters, where HKTV staff had protested to demand he give a clear account of the selection procedure.
“When [other] cabinets hold meetings, they are confidential too, no matter [what] it is [on] the agendas, content of the meetings, attendees’ speaking records or the stances of their speeches ... It’s how every other government cabinet works.
“We’re a transparent and accountable government but we have to maintain the confidentiality rules at the level of Exco, not only on the issue of TV licences but also other matters which are discussed and decided,” he added.
More than a hundred existing and former HKTV staff members, who camped outside the government headquarters in Tamar on Monday night, were at the gate at Lung Wo Road on Tuesday morning to provide support.
They were demanding the government explain why HKTV’s free-to-air TV licence application was rejected, while i-Cable’s Fantastic TV and PCCW’s Hong Kong Television Entertainment were both approved.
Around 20 members of the radical People Power political pressure group joined members of the public and the HKTV staff to wait for Leung’s arrival.
Lawmaker Charles Mok, who submitted a motion to invoke the Power and Privileges Ordinance to investigate the TV licence-issuing saga, was also there.
There has been speculation over possible political motives behind the governments’ decision. HKTV, run by businessman Ricky Wong Wai-kay, was widely seen as the most high-profile among the three applicants and he set the company’s goal as bringing a “revolution” to the city’s TV industry, for so long dominated by the two existing players.
But Leung repeated that the government had no clandestine considerations when making the decision.
“We definitely have no political consideration. No political consideration. [I want to] make it clear – there’s no political consideration,” Leung insisted.
“Mr Ricky Wong Wai-kay is not a politician, nor does he have any political stance. So, our consideration was well-rounded.”
Leung said Exco had taken into account four reports several hundred pages long written by expert consultants. The reports listed the criteria – including financial ability, programme production and the sustainable development of the TV industry – used to evaluate the three applications.
The chief executive also rejected Wong’s claim that a government official had invited him to apply for the licence, offering a guarantee that it would be granted.
“It’s impossible an official would say something like this [or] make such promise. There’s no such promise on record,” Leung said.
Leung did listen to the opinions of Exco members, he added, but the decision to grant the two free-to-air TV licences was made by the Exco as a whole.
The government is also facing a challenge by pan-democrats seeking to invoke special powers in the Legislative Council to force the disclosure of official documents linked to the case.
Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, speaking ahead of a visit to Beijing, said complex legal problems would be involved.
“The legal issues are not easy,” he said, referring to the plan to use the Legco (Powers & Privileges) Ordinance. “We hope to handle the matter with other methods.”
The question is whether the confidentiality rule binding the Executive Council could be overridden by Legco’s special powers, which can summon any document to the legislature.
Yuen, however, said the confidentiality rule was an established mechanism and should be upheld.
Responding to Wong’s mooted legal challenge to the licence rejection, he said: “We respect [an] individual’s pursuit of legal rights.”
The protest was on Tuesday entering its third day after tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered on Sunday in a march ‘to defend Hong Kong’s core values’.
Watch: HKTV supporters gather at government headquarters for second night
On Monday the protest continued, with thousands of Hongkongers converging on the government headquarters in Admiralty to watch clips of HKTV productions that might not otherwise be aired for free.
HKTV’s Wong had gambled his telecommunications empire on a four-year quest to become a player in the free-to-air television industry.
More than 240,000 fans have signed a petition on Facebook demanding HKTV get a licence.
The government’s failure to provide an adequate explanation has only added to the controversy. On Monday, around 100 HKTV staff formed a ‘justice alliance’ and said they would camp at the Tamar site until reasons were given.
Police said 36,000 people joined the rally on Sunday. HKTV suggested 80,000 may have taken part, but this was only an estimate as there had not been an official count.