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Hong Kong journalists under pressure over Taiwan WHO reporting

World Health Organization logo (Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker/Flickr)
April 04, 2020

This article was originally​ published​ by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK is under pressure from government officials after it aired an interview with a World Health Organization (WHO) official in which the interviewer touched on repeated calls from the democratic of island of Taiwan that it should be allowed to join as a member state.

RTHK on Thursday rejected criticism that it had breached the terms of its mission during the interview.

A Hong Kong government statement had said that as one its departments, RTHK should not deviate from the understanding that WHO membership is based on sovereign states, and the Director of Broadcasting “should be responsible for this.”

But RTHK said the episode had looked at various responses across the world to the coronavirus emergency, with Taiwan the focus of just part of the program, and journalists hadn’t once referred to it as a country, an idea that is anathema to Beijing.

The WHO ended Taiwan’s observer status at its annual World Health Assembly in 2016, the same year President Tsai Ing-wen, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was elected.

Beijing has stepped up efforts to undermine Taiwan’s bid for recognition from the international community since then.

The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) said the intervention by the Hong Kong government was “deeply regrettable.”

“If it’s taboo to even ask about the possibility of Taiwan’s membership of the WHO now, then this represents a hobbling of the ability of journalists to carry out their duties,” the group said in a statement on its website.

“What does that mean for press freedom in Hong Kong?”

Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, said it is never inappropriate for journalists to ask questions about newsworthy topics.

“There is nothing about this that doesn’t conform to the principle of one country, two systems,” Chung said, referring to the terms of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

“Taiwan isn’t mentioned in the Basic Law,” he said, referring to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. “It’s impossible to lay down a predetermined red line about things you’re not allowed to ask, in this way.”

“This is clearly putting restrictions on press freedom in Hong Kong,” he said.

Mask diplomacy

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo agreed, asking whether Hong Kong journalists were now no longer allowed to cover Taiwan at all.

Taiwan has meanwhile announced it will donate 10 million surgical masks to healthcare staff in countries worst-hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

Hwang Kui-po, associate professor of foreign affairs at Taiwan’s National Cheng-chi University, said the mask donations were definitely a form of diplomacy at a time when the island has been frozen out of international organizations by Beijing.

“Of course Taiwan is doing this for reasons of diplomacy,” Hwang told RFA. “Taiwan has always talked about what it can do to help, and it is the recipient of almost no foreign aid.”

Last weekend’s episode of the English-language program “The Pulse” asked WHO adviser Bruce Aylward about Taiwan’s repeated call to be allowed to join the U.N. health agency to contribute to the global fight against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The journalist asked Aylward, who helped lead a WHO mission to China’s Wuhan, if the organization would consider giving Taiwan membership.

Aylward then claimed not to be able to hear the question properly, after which the line disconnected.

He later replied that “all areas of China” have done well in the fight against the virus.

The WHO has been widely criticized for its deference to the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, and for glossing over early attempts to cover up the seriousness of the emerging epidemic in late December and early January, including echoing claims by Chinese health officials that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

“The question of Taiwanese membership in WHO is up to WHO member states, not WHO staff,” spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an email to Bloomberg. “WHO is taking lessons learned from all areas, including Taiwanese health authorities, to share best practices globally.”