The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) has criticized editorial guidelines issued for government broadcaster RTHK, as the government moves to take over greater editorial control over “sensitive” content.
In an editorial guidelines document handed to staff on Sept. 29, RTHK said its producers and journalists must uphold China’s national interests and avoid “glorifying” or depicting “criminal” activities that could incite others to do the same.
In an apparent reference to the reporting of protests similar to the 2019 anti-extradition movement, the guidelines said the station should avoid portraying the actions of “criminals or criminal suspects” as “glorious, heroic deeds.”
The HKJA said it was unclear what kind of treatment would constitute “glorifying” crime, and took aim at a new “upwards referrals” process outlined in the document that actively encourages journalists to ask their editors’ and managers’ permission when reporting on “sensitive” topics.
The Hong Kong government and ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media have repeatedly characterized the protests and civil disobedience actions of 2019 as “rioting,” with protest-era slogans decreed to be “secessionist” and a threat to China’s national security.
The CCP’s imposition of a draconian national security law on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020 criminalizes speech deemed to “incite hatred” against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, and has ushered in a citywide crackdown on all forms of public dissent, peaceful protest, and political opposition, with dozens of former opposition lawmakers charged with “subversion” under the law for taking part in a democratic primary.
The HKJA said media organizations rely on a frank exchange of views between reporters and TV crews and their editors, because the former are closer to the action.
“Anyone with a little media experience should be able to understand that it is often counterproductive to issue one-way, top-down instructions … because it turns news organizations into production lines for churning out scripts,” the HKJA said in a statement in response to the new guidelines.
“Internal communications of media organizations focus more on discussions than commands,” it said. “The HKJA is concerned that RTHK management mistakenly believes that by issuing guidelines on content production, supplemented by a ‘referral’ mechanism, communication problems can be resolved or programs can be guaranteed to be error-free,” it said.
“The HKJA sincerely hopes that the RTHK management [will] sincerely and respectfully work with their employees, who have professional experience in journalism, to maintain program quality,” it said.
Under a restructuring imposed by the government in March 2021, an editorial board has been empowered to vet all program content and to issue top-down directives to journalists regarding coverage.
The guidelines encourage producers to “submit program plans to the board for review at the early stages of planning, enabling it to be more proactive in guiding the production process.”
“Individual production units should proactively make use of the ‘upward referral’ system for consulting RTHK management on important and contentious issues,” the guidelines say.
Failure to rigorously implement the guidelines may result in disciplinary action.
‘Building national identity’
Under the new guidelines, RTHK is expected to build “national identity” through its content and “take into consideration that Hong Kong is part of [China].”
It is also barred from referring to democratic Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the CCP nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China, as a country, or a country-like entity, in keeping with Beijing’s territorial claim on the island.
The station must also help the government promote, and communicate about, the national security law.
“All program makers should be vigilant to the portrayal, depiction, or treatment of any act or activity which may constitute or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offense endangering national security,” the guidelines state, warning producers against content that could be seen to encourage, incite, promote, glorify, endorse, or sympathize with acts endangering national security.
The warnings would likely mean that, should street protests and police violence occur in Hong Kong, they couldn’t be covered from the front line with interviews with protesters, only from the point of view of the government.
“News coverage in the run-up to a demonstration or public order event requires careful handling so that we would not be seen as promoting it,” the guidelines warn. “Reporting teams should also pay attention to police instructions and keep a distance from the center of a clash.”
Advisor to the Director of Broadcasting Kitty Choi said the guidelines aren’t trying to catch people out.
“They are telling them what guidelines they need to follow, and what mistakes to avoid,” Choi said, adding that the the bulk of the text of the document hadn’t changed since the last edition.
But HKJA chairman Ronson Chan said the person who wrote the new guidelines probably didn’t have any journalistic experience.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.