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Arbitrary TV License Decision Undermines Hong Kong Freedom of Speech

Two new free-to-air television licenses were issued on 15 October 2013 to PCCW Ltd and I-Cable Communications Ltd. The decision should have been seen as a big step to opening up the monopolized local television market, yet the screening out of Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), regarded as the most promising new competitor by the public, encourages people to believe that the Beijing government is operating behind the scenes.

As PCCW and I-Cable are existing paid-TV operators, the government's decision has not changed the monopoly nature of local media ecology – the most important public demand reflected in a consultation in 2009 carried out by the Broadcasting Authority. Frustrated by news, some netizens created a page, Support Hong Kong Television, and within two days, more than 437 thousand people have joined.

Facebook Group, Support HKTV called for a protest on October 20. Protest poster said: I want TV box, not black box.

Facebook Group, Support HKTV called for a protest on October 20. Protest poster said: I want TV box, not black box.

Monopoly of the TV market

As a global city, Hong Kong only has two free-to-air television companies and one of them, the Television Broadcasts Limited has monopolized the market for more than 40 years. For more than two decades since the early 1990s, the civil society has been demanding that the government issue more free-to-air TV licenses to new competitors. But so far it just issued one cable TV permit (operated by I-Cable) in 1993 and a broadband TV permit (operated by PCCW) in 2003. Both are paid services.

In response to the 2009 public consultation on the local media environment, the Broadcasting Authority called for public application of new free-to-air TV licenses and reviewed three applications in 2010. The Authority then suggested that the Government Executive Council issue three new permits in 2011. Since then the three applicants, in particular the HKTV, have been preparing to enter the market and the local people are full of expectation. However, the government eventually screened off the only new competitor, HKTV, from entering the TV market without giving any concrete explanation.

320 workers dismissed

Soon after the result was released, the entrepreneur behind HKTV, Ricky Wong, revealed in a press conference that he received an invitation to make the application back in 2010 and the high-level government source was very optimistic that he would get a license. To prepare for the venture, he sold City Telecom in 2012 and so far ahs invested more than one billion HK dollars to prepare for HKTV. Soon after the government announced the result, HKTV was forced to dismiss 320 workers. A drama director from HKTV, So Man Chong, expressed his frustration towards the Hong Kong government in an interview [zh] with the House News, an online blog portal in Hong Kong:

全隊人用年幾兩年時間、比荷里活制作更加認真,做咗一件無愧於心嘅事情,但係而家被扼殺,原因不明,好唔岔氣。冇後悔(加入HKTV);唔關香港電視事、唔關王生事,我地完全係輸咗畀政府。對政府好失望、痛心,原本唔想去佔中,而家都想佔中。

Our production team spent up to two year time [to produce one drama], our production is more professional than Hollywood. We devoted our heart [to prepare for the new TV station]. But the whole plan was screwed without giving any reason. So frustrated. I don't feel regret (for joining HKTV); The fault does not lie with HKTV and Mr. Wong. It is the government's responsibility. I am so disappointed with the government. I didn't want to join the Occupy Central in the first place, now I want to.

Another junior script writer, Chong Yuen Ping, shared [zh] in Facebook:

由零至開立一間電視台的風險可想而知,仍然堅持下去是因為相信香港有很多觀眾渴求高質素的電視劇集。由內容貼緊社會現實(普通家庭不再住千呎大宅),全實景拍攝,不避談政治話題等等,都是希望為民發聲,回應社會。

Operating a TV station from ground zero is very risky. The reason why we can still cling on is that we believe Hong Kong people demand better quality TV drama. The content should be more in touch with reality (ordinary families won't be living in 1000 square feet apartments). Use real life settings and don't avoid political topics. We want to speak for people and react to social concerns.

昨天,所有的夢想都幻滅了,當中蘊藏的政治意味,當權者利益欲蓋彌彰。但更難過的是否定了我們一直以來的努力。今早,公司開會宣佈裁減過半數員工,王生入場時,我們都拍手,因為我們清楚知道這個決定對他而言亦很沉重,有人問他是否知道不獲發牌原因,他說只有一不敢說的原因,大家都知道這是甚麼原因了吧!

Yesterday all our dreams shattered, hidden among the political overtones, the interests of those in power trying to hide something. The decision has denied all our efforts. This morning the company announced plans to cut more than half of its employees. When Wong entered the room, we all clapped because we know that the decision is very heavy for him. Someone asked if he knows what is the reason behind the permit, he said the only reason is the unspeakable reason. Everyone knows what is the reason!

Political screen out

According to a leaked consultation document revealed by local newspaper Apple Daily [zh], HKTV was ranked number 2 in term of competitiveness and major government officials were supportive of the decision to issue three new licenses. Yet the recommendation from the government administration was over-ruled in the Executive Council. Many believe that the decision is political in nature and the final decision was made by the Beijing government.

Lam Shiu Bun pointed out [zh] that all media tycoons in Hong Kong have to win the trust of the Beijing government. Although Ricky Wong is a successful businessman, Beijing government may feel threatened by his management style:

王維基在2008年1月至2013年1月曾經擔任浙江省政協委員,有一定程度的親中背景,不過他作為「魔童」的言行實在是難以估計,他在2008年出任亞洲電視行政總裁,強調亞視不應背靠大陸,說過「不做中央電視台」、「親共的電視沒有人看,只有反共的電視台才有人看」等言論,嚴重得罪紅色資本。另外,又有傳王維基與黎智英關係密切,未來的免費電視台隨時變成反共的機器。

Although Ricky Wong was appointed as CPPCC member of the Zhejiang province between 2008 and 2013 and has a pro-China outlook, it is difficult to predict the “magic boy” [Wong's nickname in the business field]. Back in 2008, he acted as the CEO of Asia Television [two of the current free-to-air television stations, Beijing mouthpieces in Hong Kong]. Back then, he stressed that ATV should not depend on mainland China and should not become another Central China Television channel. He also pointed out pro-communist TV does not have the market and people like anti-communist opinion. He had pissed off the red capital [mainland Chinese capital]. There are also rumors that Ricky Wong is familiar with Jimmy Lai [an anti-CCP media tycoon in Hong Kong] and that the future free-to-air TV would become an anti-CCP machine.

Many civic groups have spoken out against the government's decision. The Hong Kong Journalist Association issued a statement [zh] demanding that the government reveal the decision making process in detail. The Chinese University School of Journalism and Communication also issued a statement, believing the decision will eventually bring adverse effects for free speech in Hong Kong as the government can control the media organization by its arbitrary decision making process:

今次事件,造成極壞先例。發牌制度決策不透明, 將令有意加入廣播行業的經營者卻步。現正營運並有意續牌的廣播機構,也將要面對不明朗的處境。長遠來說,會影響本港的資訊和言論自由。

The incident has set an extremely bad example. The decision lacks transparency and will discourage future competitors from joining the broadcasting industry. Even for the existing operators, they have to face unpredictable circumstances when they renew their licenses in the future. In the long term, it will affect Hong Kong's information and freedom of expression.

The Support HKTV Facebook group has decided to launch a protest against the decision on October 20.

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