Thursday, July 13, 2006

Censorship at RTHK

I find it disconcerting that over the last week or so I have become much more political. As I normally try to not be political this is a disturbing trend. However, I have a couple of more political or quasi-political post left in my queue of things I want to say and then I should be back to my more normal meditative, slice of life post.

There was an interesting article in the International Herald Tribune yesterday titled "Broadcaster Feels Chill In Hong Kong" that I found disturbing. It talks about how RTHK is being pressured to change its content to reflect a more pro-government position.

To be fair, the article starts off by noting that the non-governmental press and broadcasters are completely unfettered. But, then tries to show how RTHK has been singled out for censorship.

The article then generalizes the experience at RTHK to the rest of Hong Kong.

As an example of this censorship the article states that RTHK's website is often blocked in the PRC, wow, how unusual!

Then there is a transition from RTHK to broadcasting at large.

Let me quote from the article:Prominent pro-democracy politicians like Emily Lau say the public broadcasting review is troubling because the Hong Kong government has a history of seeking to limit freedom of expression since British rule ended here in 1997."The situation is getting worse and worse," said Lau, a legislator who once was the head of the local journalists' association. Lau said efforts to restrain the media had included intimidation and behind-the-scenes pressure on prominent media critics of the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not advocating censorship, I am a librarian and they probably wouldn't have given me an MLIS degree if I did, but there were some real problems with this article.

First, nowhere in the article does the article talk about the accounting and financial scandals currently swirling around RTHK. I think, that it is a fair to say if that if RTHK is (How can I say this politely?) stealing government money through fraudulent overtime, unregulated purchases and improper use of RTHK facilities, vehicles and supplies then maybe there could also be some question about the content of the programs. If RTHK, which is a government organization, wants to be free of government interference in its content then it needs to be free of corruption and engage in transparent and ethical accounting practices. Period, full stop, no further argument is required.

This is not Bill Clinton having the IRS target his political enemies. The financial problems at RTHK are apparently quite clear and plane and have been published by other local outlets.

Second, RTHK is a branch of the GOVERNMENT. It receives its funding from the GOVERNMENT. That means that it is, in some measure, answerable to the GOVERNMENT for its policies and is ipso facto, an organ for the government to dissimilate governmental policies and positions. Just as I, the parent can refuse to give my daughter cash or restrict her choices through my lack of financial support the HK government can demand that RTHK provide news and commentary that reflect the government position and withhold funding or support if RTHK refuses to do so. This isn’t censorship; it is the government getting what it has paid for. The Hong Kong government pays RTHK's bills.

I understand that many journalist like to think of themselves as "progressive, enlightened, urbane and civilized fighters for the truth;" I also think they tend to, many times, view the world through a rather strangely tinted gestalt that makes them think that normal rules of business, economics law and even taste somehow do not apply to them. RTHK should realize who their employer is.

When RTHK, as cited in the article compared Tung Che Wah to the Taliban they crossed a line of not only taste but of journalistic responsibility that gave government officials cause to question not only the veracity of RTHK's point of view but its ability to fulfill its function as a n official news source and gave the government a plausible warrant to say that maybe RTHK needed to be reeled in.

Journalists, especially those who work for state supported broadcasters should never forget to paraphrase Nicolo Machiavelli that the foremost purpose of any government is to perpetuate itself. Just as a writer who works for the Tourism Board should be expected to publish articles that deal with the restaurants and parks in Hong Kong and ignores the air-pollution; journalists who work for RTHK should realize that they will be, at least in part, required to tow the government's line. To misapply the New Testament "A house divided against it self cannot stand." No government anywhere at any time is going to allow a state owned broadcaster to seriously undermine the rest of the government; especially if, as in the case of comparing the Tung administration to the Taliban the undermining is based upon mischaracterization. That is true of all governments at all times.

That means that if RTHK is critical of the government it must be very sure that what it says is provable. If a journalist cannot deal with that fact then they should work for somebody else. Indeed, they should find another line of work.

Likewise, people who listen to state sponsored broadcasters, whether RTHK, The BBC, PBS or whatever should always remember that they are listening to an official government organ and realize that the government will want to spin the information like a top to make it self look good.

Third, hearsay is not evidence. If, as Emily Lau says "The situation is getting worse and worse," said Lau, a legislator who once was the head of the local journalists' association. Lau said efforts to restrain the media had included intimidation and behind-the-scenes pressure on prominent media critics of the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing." Then the journalists who are being intimidated and threatened need to step forward and identify who is threatening them.

They need to name names of who it is that is intimidating journalist who criticize the PRC or HK government they need to supply specifics; they need to get the people threatening them on tape and expose them. That is what investigative journalism is all about. They should not let the intimidation remain "behind the scenes." Let us see the tapes on TVB or ATV at 7:30 as the lead story on the evening news. I can hear them say; "Fai Mao would you be that brave" Well, perhaps that is one of the reasons I am not a journalist. They took the job, I didn't. I fight my battles and they should fight theirs.

Please note I would not be surprised if the PRC or HK governments practice intimidation but the media outlets need to document it and file charges against the people doing this as they have every right to do under the basic law. If they cannot present evidence then they should not spread what are, in effect, only rumors. So, Emily, put up or shut up. If that idiot Long Hair Leung can get the horrific surveillance law thrown out then you should be able to prove this and have the courts protect free speech in this area. It is your job as a servant of the people.

That said journalist should also realize that they are not above the law. RTHK cannot engage in dodgy accounting and justify it by saying "We are a broadcaster! They cannot say anything they want and hid behind the "I'm a journalist" shield. If a media outlet or journalist publishes treasonous materials then they should be ready to stand trial as traitors. (Notice if you are a traitor to evil government you might very well be a good person and still be considered a traitor in the law's eyes.) If they publish lies they should be not be surprised when people call them liars. If they claim something is a fact they should be ready to supply the proof needed to document the facts. If they spin their stories to fit a pre-existing ideological bent then journalist should not be surprised if people stop reading or listening to them and refuse to grant them the influence they believe they deserve.

Conversely, if they stand for truth and do so ethically, honestly and without hypocrisy then they will have more respect than they could ever imagine.

What they cannot do is have it both ways. They cannot be shallow, puerile, cowardly and false and have people respect them for being deep, honorable, brave and truthful.

Finally, this story bothered me because it places me in an uncomfortable position. I do not enjoy being seen as a shill for the government. I generally think the PRC is oppressive and the HK government inept and servile. I don’t really enjoy defending either of them.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Reluctant Defender of the Government Blogger

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