Outspoken government critic Lee Wai-ling has been taken off her politically influential morning radio show and replaced by her boss, media veteran Stephen Chan Chi-wan.
Lee will move from hosting Commercial Radio's prime-time morning current affairs programme On A Clear Day to evening show The Tipping Point, a less prominent slot. Chan, the station's chief executive, will host the morning show with two other male hosts from Monday.
The move drew speculation about it being a political decision, as Lee's critical stance has apparently made her unpopular in the eyes of the government and the pro-establishment camp.
Commercial Radio will have to apply to extend its licence by August 25 next year before it expires in 2016. It has been rumoured that taking Lee off the show was part of the deal.
On her Facebook page last night, Lee wrote: "We should be prepared that anything can happen in today's Hong Kong. I will hang in there until the last moment."
Chan denied there was any political agenda behind the move, putting it down to a programming decision instead. "We are not pleasing the government. Commercial Radio has never and will never bow to the government," he said.
But former broadcasting director Cheung Man-yee said the reason for the move was "an open secret".
"Whether applying for a new licence or a renewal, media operators … face a lot of pressure," she said. "Some outspoken programme hosts are not welcomed by the government. The stage at which they have to leave … is an open secret."
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, who was told to leave Commercial Radio's then morning show Teacup in the Storm after a controversy surrounding Albert Cheng King-hon's departure, refused to accept that the move was a simple programming decision.
"The public sees Chan [who was previously TVB's general manager and host of its popular talk show Be My Guest] as an entertainment persona more than a political critic," he said, expressing concern that the government would target vocal critics until they were all gone.
Pro-government lawmaker Ann Chiang Lai-wan admitted that some in the pro-establishment camp "don't like Lee".
Chan's denial of any political maneuvring failed to convince critics and even his own staff.
The station's insiders said that those involved - including Lee, her programme partners and current The Tipping Point host Elizabeth Wong Kit-wai - were told of the decision only yesterday morning. "When Chan first joined Commercial Radio, he transferred Lee from The Tipping Point to On A Clear Day because he saw her as a rising star," said a source close to the saga, adding Chan's attitude towards Lee had changed in the past two weeks.