Hong Kong experts fear censorship from media audit

Friday, Apr 28, 2006,Page 5

Hong Kong media experts yesterday expressed fears for freedom of speech after the government unveiled plans to set up an audit team to monitor the territory's public broadcaster.
The Audit Commission released a damning report on Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) on Wednesday highlighting its poor financial controls, management problems and its failure to comply with government rules and procedures.

The internal audit team, which includes audit staff members from the government-funded broadcaster, will be led by the Hong Kong Treasury and the Audit Commission.

RTHK has long been under pressure from the pro-Beijing camp for not defending or strongly promoting government policies.

They had also attacked RTHK's satirical programs for poking fun at government officials.

While government officials dismissed any political motives behind the moves, local media experts were worried that the government could move to tighten its grip on RTHK following its decision in January to launch a review of public broadcasting policy.

They also raised fears for the broadcaster's editorial independence and expressed concern that it could be transformed into a government propaganda tool.

"There's a danger ... that it will creep into that direction. If RTHK are subject to the criticism, they will spend more time complying with official requirements. They will feel less independent," said Tim Hamlett, professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"This is bound to raise concerns for the freedom of speech here because the mainland don't have it," he said.

Associate journalism professor Louise Leung (i) said: "The government must be cautious and advised not to add additional constraints rigidly that is to kill creativity and narrow down the latitude of press freedom."

The former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with Beijing's promise that it would continue to enjoy those liberties.

However, watchdogs say some media firms practise self-censorship of news items critical of China.

Six months ago RTHK was forced to axe its decades-old horse-racing radio commentary following criticism by Chief Executive Donald Tsang (\) that the broadcaster had dabbled too much in entertainment.

The new report includes complaints that news teams did not get management approval to work overtime before covering a breaking story.

Cheung Ping-ling (), chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, questioned the motives of putting RTHK under special scrutiny.

"The commission had never set up any special committees in any organizations that made mistakes that led to losses of millions of dollars ... I question why the government is putting such pressure on RTHK," she said.

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