FIVE MONTHS after Cheung Man-yee's controversial departure from RTHK, the publicly-proclaimed defender of media freedom still casts a long shadow over the government broadcaster. From her exile in Tokyo, the former director of broadcasting regularly fires back e-mails to key staff. These leave little room for doubt that Ms Cheung misses the station after 13 years at the helm, although recipients insist she is at pains not to be seen as a back-seat driver after becoming Hong Kong's representative in Japan. But her continuing interest is understandable, as RTHK finds itself at a crucial crossroads in its development - facing up to the technological demands of the future while dealing with a funding squeeze. It is also gearing up to take radical steps including 'outsourcing' documentaries and drama to independent producers, and moving out of the ageing Broadcast Drive headquarters to a new complex in Tseung Kwan O. Observers fear that the Government's capping of growth in the broadcaster's budget at two to four per cent a year since the handover - well below the hefty rises it enjoyed under colonial rule - has resulted from criticism of the station by pro-Beijing leftists. The issue comes under the spotlight in the Legislative Council today, when officials will be questioned by legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan on the state of the station's funding. New director Chu Pui-hing denies the cuts are politically motivated. 'We have not been suffering more than other departments,' he said. 'We have been asked to increase productivity and savings as much as other departments.' But Ms Ho is concerned that the public broadcaster has not received any real increase in funding - after allowing for inflation - during the past three years. She argued that the station's newly-relaunched Web site and its Putonghua radio channel deserved more funding to operate effectively. An analysis of RTHK's government-allocated budget shows it lagging behind the increases in total public expenditure. Funding rose by just four per cent in 1998-99, far below the 14 per cent increase in government spending as a whole. The financial year 1999-2000 saw a two per cent rise, compared with four per cent in overall public expenditure. This year, government spending is expected to rise by three per cent while, according to figures supplied by the station, RTHK will have zero growth. Ms Ho said she 'suspected' the funding cutback was linked to political hostility towards the station, although she had no proof of this. Attacks have come from the likes of Kowloon City district councillor and former provisional legislator Wong Siu-yee, who claimed it was using editorial independence as a pretext for building an 'independent empire'. Another arch-critic is Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference member Xu Simin. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is viewed as sympathetic to such criticism, after Mr Xu reported he had responded to a request that RTHK be kept under some control by urging 'slowly, slowly'. Ms Ho warned the issue was not only one about equipment becoming outdated but also about freedom of speech at the publicly-funded broadcaster. 'How can we ensure that they can continue operating independently and not be afraid of biting the hand that feeds them? That is an issue we need to face up to,' she said. Ms Cheung sought to guarantee RTHK's autonomy by having it corporatised along the lines of the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which have a board separating them from the governments which provide funding. But the proposal ran into opposition from Beijing, and staff no longer believed it was feasible, said Ms Ho, adding that many employees feared they could lose their jobs under the guise of efficiency measures. Acting deputy director Raymond Ng Sek-fai said RTHK management still believed corporatisation was the best option. An insider said the station was divided on the issue, with programme-makers supporting it as the best way to ensure their autonomy, while support staff feared it would lead to job losses and outsourcing of work. The director, Mr Chu, was coy about whether he had sought to smooth over the station's poor relations with the leftist camp. But he admitted that 'it was a shock' when Ms Cheung was removed as director of broadcasting last November, a move widely viewed as being linked to the station's decision to give radio air time to a Taiwanese representative, although this was strongly denied by the Government. 'Even with that particular incident I think the Government was very quick to assure the community and RTHK that the primacy of editorial independence remains. I must say that promise was strictly adhered to,' Mr Chu said, adding that staff sentiment had settled. RTHK is now working on plans to find other sources of funding for its Web pages. The options included finding sponsors, bartering or collaborating with other broadcasters, Mr Ng said. It seems these options are another move likely to decrease the station's reliance on the Government. Outspoken talkback programme host Albert Cheng King-hon has been a longtime critic of RTHK, berating its $500 million-a-year budget and accusing the station of being too costly and duplicating the work of commercial broadcasters, rather than being creative and original. 'If they rely too much on the Government to run a luxurious operation, all the Government has to do is cut its budget to reign it in,' he said. 'They have to survive on their own.'