This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), a government department that enjoyed editorial independence before a draconian national security law banned criticism of the authorities in July 2020, has been ordered to stop referring to Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen as president.
The broadcaster, which restructured in February to enable a government-appointed committee to supervise its editorial content, has been ordered to comply with a memo sent to all editorial staff on July 20, with immediate effect.
“As RTHK is Hong Kong’s public service broadcaster as well as a government department, it must … exercise a high level of caution in the use of terminology in relation to Taiwan in all its television, radio and news media services,” the document said.
It said journalists are now banned from using terms like “country,” “Republic of China,” “National,” or “Legislative Yuan,” when reporting on Taiwan, a democratic country of 24 million people that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China.
“Under no circumstances should Taiwan be referred to as a sovereign state, or perceived as one,” the directive said.
Tsai, who was re-elected in a landslide victory in 2020 on a platform of standing up to China’s territorial and political claims over Taiwan, should be referred to as a “regional leader,” it said.
The words “Taiwan government” should be avoided, and “Taiwan authorities” used instead, it said, while the island’s democratic parliament, the Legislative Yuan, should be referred to as Taiwan’s legislative body, the memo said.
The changes were necessary to promote “a sense of citizenship and national identity,” the memo said.
The directive comes after the Hong Kong government in February announced changes to the editorial chain-of-command, replacing the director of broadcasting and reforming RTHK’s editorial structure to “ensure it complies” with government directives.
Career bureaucrat Patrick Li took over from Leung Ka-wing as editor-in-chief from March 1.
Chief executive Carrie Lam recently began her own show on RTHK, in which she interviews pro-China figures on topics likely to be approved by Beijing.
Following the restructuring in March, RTHK management announced the station would air Lam’s daily show four times a day, to “engender a sense of citizenship and national identity.”
Former RTHK program host Johnny Lau said the insistence on following the CCP party line on Taiwan was likely to expand beyond the government broadcaster.
“The concept of one country, two systems is getting hazier and hazier,” Lau said in a reference to China’s promise to allow Hong Kong to operate its existing political and judicial arrangements for at least 50 years following the 1997 handover from British rule.
“One country, two systems as an ideology will eventually come to mean applying the mainland Chinese system to Hong Kong,” he said.
Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) chairman Ronson Chan said the directive could be just the beginning of government micromanagement of editorial decisions.
“If they can issue such requirements for news about Taiwan, then they will have requirements for other news stories in future,” Chan told RFA. “This can only result in further restrictions [on journalists].”
An RTHK spokesman said the station is a public service broadcaster and a government department, and so its programming must “strictly abide by the one-China principle,” Beijing’s shorthand for its insistence on “unification” with Taiwan, and refusal to rule out annexing the country by force.
The memo came after pro-Beijing lawmaker Luk Chung-hung hit out at RTHK on July 16 for referring to Tsai as president.
The station should comply with the CCP’s insistence that Taiwan be referred to as a province of China, and its government as a regional government, Luk told reporters.
Press freedom ‘in tatters’
Hong Kong’s press freedom is ‘in tatters’, following the forced closure of the Apple Daily newspaper and the arrests of columnists under the national security law, the HKJA said in an annual report last week.
Press freedom in the city has been increasingly affected by political “red lines” laid down after Beijing imposed its national security law on the city from July 1, 2020, the report found.
It listed the arrest of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai on charges of “colluding with foreign powers,” a forthcoming law banning “fake news,” government control over content broadcast by RTHK, and the arrest of a journalist for searching a public database for car license plates for a documentary.
It also cited the forced closure of the Apple Daily after its bank accounts were frozen and the arrests of its columnists and top executives on the same charges as Lai.
The group called on the administration of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to shelve planned legislation banning “fake news” and misinformation, and for police to stop defining who is a journalist for the purposes of reporting major public events.