The move by ATV to air a portrayal last week of the Dalai Lama produced by the Chinese publicity machine has fuelled local worries that the local electronic media are in danger of being degraded into a propaganda tool for Beijing. The bone of contention is a 90-minute documentary made by China Central Television (CCTV), which dismisses the 14th Dalai Lama, now in exile in India, as an ungrateful and weak-willed figure overly concerned about his 'life, status and power'. The programme, in Putonghua, made its debut on CCTV on August 24. A week later, the national channel screened an English version. ATV World broadcast the same copy unedited, with Nicam bilingual service, in its usual movie time-slot last Tuesday night. The film was also dubbed into Cantonese and aired at 12.10am last Sunday. The decision to air the film in such an awkward time-slot was made before the sudden death of Princess Diana and had nothing to do with the rescheduling of programmes to accommodate her funeral and special features about her. ATV previously aired an official documentary on China's late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. CCTV has also come up with another one on the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, ahead of its 15th congress. According to CCTV, its production on the Dalai Lama is a 'factual and objective' report of the momentous events in Tibet between the 1930s and 1950s. More than 20 historians, local officials and religious leaders, as well as acquaintances of the Dalai Lama, were interviewed. The documentary points to direct British and American attempts to create an independent Tibet. It asserts that the CIA started recruiting operatives from Tibet in 1954, five years before the Dalai Lama fled the country. The agents were said to have been organised by the Dalai Lama's two brothers and trained in Taiwan before being ordered to commit terrorist acts in Lhasa. According to CCTV, 170 separatists received guerilla training in Colorado. The Dalai Lama and his sympathisers are, of course, not given the right of reply. The news media on the mainland do not recognise the Western journalistic virtue of giving all parties fair play. Chinese officials are convinced the West has churned out heaps of reports on Tibet biased against Beijing. They hope this account of the Dalai Lama will help reshape world opinion. But initial responses from the Hong Kong audience suggest that Chinese efforts have been counter-productive. The day after the film was shown on ATV's World channel, a resident called an evening radio talkback show and stated the obvious - that the presentation had been one-sided. Unaware of the programme's source, the caller was curious about - and asked the hosts to check out - who had produced it. South China Morning Post yesterday published a letter to the editor on the same subject, headlined: ' 'Documentary' an ominous sign.' The complainant demanded that ATV explain why it had chosen to broadcast a Chinese propaganda film. The CCTV production itself is of some academic value. As noted in an ATV press release, half the historical footage in the film had not been released to the public before. The documentary also serves as a succinct summary of the Chinese case on Tibet, which may not be able to find its way into the mainstream Western media. But a more prudent and responsible way for ATV to handle the documentary would be for its public affairs department to organise a panel discussion on the questions it raises. Wharf Cable, for instance, did exactly that after airing the BBC documentary The Last Governor. Those former Governor Chris Patten singled out for criticism were given a chance for rebuttal. Only through uninhibited public debates can the public be in a better position to reach an informed view on contentious issues. The Hong Kong media are apparently inclined to steer away from the politically-emotive issue of Tibet in their daily coverage of international events. Those relying on the local media alone for their daily dose of knowledge on world affairs would be unlikely to reach an educated position on the conflict in the Chinese autonomous region. The station seems eager to refrain from hosting such touchy discussions. The sphere of public debate is doomed to shrink further in a year or two, when local laws supplementing Article 23 of the Basic Law prohibit subversion, secession and other crimes against national security. The audience has ample reason to be sceptical of the two free-to-air television stations when it comes to sensitive topics of Chinese politics. Six ATV veteran journalists resigned in June 1994, following a confrontation with the management over how to handle a Spanish documentary focusing on the night of the military crackdown at Tiananmen Square. TVB, on the other hand, has also been accused of being obsequious to the political masters in Beijing. The commercial broadcaster bought the rights to The Last Emperor, a BBC documentary, in 1993. Beijing officials were offended by the documentary's description of the sexual proclivities of Chairman Mao Zedong. At that time TVB opted to shelve the BBC film on the pretext that other titles on Mao had flooded the local market. Four years have lapsed, and the Hong Kong audience is still waiting for the documentary to be released. With TV stations' previous behaviour prompting concerns about threats to the public's right to know, occasioned by undue self-censorship by media managers and proprietors, CCTV has us wondering whether the The Dalai Lama will prove the harbinger of more propaganda films to be rammed down our throats.