Censoring Hong Kong's airwaves
Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong. Photo by angielauw via Flickr.

Censoring Hong Kong's airwaves

Underground radio station Citizens Radio's legal saga continues, while politically connected Wave Media sees few obstacles in its way

By Winghei Kwok
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Though widely perceived as a relatively free city, Hong Kong has only three licensed radio stations -- state-owned RTHK and corporate-owned Commercial Radio and Metro Radio -- a number comparable to North Korea.

Yip Iam Chong, editor of independent forum website Inmediahk.net, said that freedom of expression over Hong Kong's airwaves is often undermined by radio station owners because the current licensing system caters to big corporations that often have close ties with the Hong Kong and Beijing governments.

"The government won't directly forbid certain media or certain people from speaking. However, under these circumstances, the room for freedom of speech in Hong Kong will gradually diminish," said Chong.

Therefore, while politically connected and heavily funded Wave Media waits expectantly in the wings, Hong Kong underground radio station Citizens Radio, which says its mission is to provide a public space for people's voices, is often a target of the Hong Kong administration.

When the constitutionality of the Telecommunication Ordinance was questioned in January, the Department of Justice issued an injunction to bar Citizens Radio from broadcasting, but the injunction was lifted a week later by Justice Michael Hartmann, who called for a speedy review of the ordinance.

While the injunction could be seen as a government's desperate measure to curb freedom of speech, the entire incident also raised debate of how far one can go in the name of free speech and questioned the future of new media outlets in Hong Kong.

Citizens Radio's legal saga

In 2005 Citizens Radio applied for a broadcasting license and was rejected, but it went ahead and aired on FM 102.8, part of Metro Finance's frequency, on several occasions. In 2006, police raided the radio station twice, confiscated equipment and charged Citizens Radio for operating illegal broadcasting equipment.

On Nov. 12, 2007, six activists -- Citizens Radio founder and former legislator Tsang Kin-Shing, veteran activist Szeto Wah, lawmaker Leung Kwok Hung, and radio journalists Chan Miu Tak, Poon Tat Keung and Yang Kuang -- were charged with illegal broadcasting. The situation took a turn on Jan. 8, 2008, when Eastern Magistrate Douglas Yau Tak Hong ruled that the broadcast licensing law under the Telecommunication Ordinance (Chapter 106), which gives the chief executive unlimited power to determine the condition and the granting of licenses, was unconstitutional because it infringed on the right to freedom of speech as sanctioned by the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights.

According to Yau, since the licensing law is deemed questionable, the illegal broadcasting charges made under the ordinance against the six activists should be dismissed.

But later that day, Yau suspended his ruling and adjourned the constitutional hearing until March 11, giving the administration time to apply an appeal for review. Yau also cancelled the previous dismissal of charges against the six activists. Two days later, High Court Justice Barnabas Fung Wah imposed an injunction barring Citizens Radio from going on air for seven days.

Legislator Emily Lau questioned the High Court's order because it seemed like a contradiction. She told AsiaMedia, "The whole thing is very weird when there is an injunction against a criminal offense."

Citizens Radio decided to broadcast in defiance of the injunction and went on air in the Mong Kok commercial district that evening. Hosts and guests who participated in the broadcast were charged later with contempt of court, which carries a penalty of six months in jail.

While lawmakers and media experts questioned the justification of the injunction, the legal community and even human rights groups found the activists' engagement in civil disobedience problematic.

Unresolved issue

Although Justice Hartmann lifted the injunction against Citizens Radio on Jan. 18, citing no evidence that the underground station caused any harm to society, he said those who acted in contempt of the injunction would still be held accountable.

Lau told AsiaMedia that the Hong Kong administration may bring the constitutionality hearing all the way to the Court of Final Appeal, and if the appeal is struck down, the administration would "rush to amend the law" in order to keep licenses regulated.

According to a government press release, the constitutionality hearing will take place at the Court of Appeal from September 10 to 12. Meanwhile, Citizens Radio broadcasted on April 20 in Mongkok and on May 4 in Causeway Bay. The radio station is under investigation by the Office of Telecommunication Authority for illegal broadcasting on both occasions.

Playing the game

While Citizens Radio struggles with the Hong Kong administration, a possible, new radio station has a more positive outlook. On Feb. 26, legislator and ex-Commercial Radio broadcaster Albert Cheng King-hon, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference member Wong Cho-bau, and former education chief Arthur Li Kwok-Cheung, along with a group of bankers and media executives filed an application for a broadcasting license for a new AM radio channel called Wave Media.

According to their application, Wave Media will broadcast on frequency AM 810 with 168 hours of Chinese-language programs per week comprising of news, music, public affairs and 30 hours of "Harmonious Society" content.

Shareholders intend to invest HK$140 million once the license is awarded. With significant financial support, the news station is optimistic about its application.

"We are confident that our shareholders' credentials, their financial strength, and the extensive experience of the management team in radio broadcasting will qualify us for a radio broadcasting license," said Kelvin Lai, project coordinator of Wave Media's sound broadcasting license application, in an interview with AsiaMedia.

Media commentator and journalist Stephen Vines called the application "an opportunity for a bunch of opportunists to curry favor with the government" and questioned the credibility of Cheng, as the outspoken "Chief Executive before Ten" that the Hong Kong people used to know.

Cheng co-hosted a widely popular, political phone-in program on Commercial Radio called "Teacup in a Storm" with Wong Yuk-Man, but in 2004, both quit, citing "political threats."

"Although its founder Albert Cheng is a famous broadcaster -- he got famous by being unafraid to air criticism -- now he seems keen to get in bed with the authorities and his credibility will be seriously damaged," said Vines.