Hong Kong Broadcaster Halts Production Plans Amid Press Freedom Fears

A Hong Kong broadcaster on Tuesday suspended plans to launch mobile TV service in July this year amid concerns that the days of the territory's formerly freewheeling press are already long gone.

Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) will suspend new program production and postpone plans to launch a mobile TV service after Hong Kong's government regulator said it would need a broadcasting license.

HKTV was denied a free-to-air television licence last year after a three-year wait, sparking protests and allegations of official revenge for its criticism of the city's chief executive C.Y. Leung.

It pushed ahead with plans for a mobile service in December after acquiring China Mobile Hong Kong Corporation along with its mobile television license. The corporation was not stopped from operating a mobile service.

HKTV chief Ricky Wong said the company had been notified about the need for the license to operate the mobile TV service by Hong Kong's regulator, the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA).

"OFCA is of the view that the company's proposed transmissions standard would [require] the company to obtain a domestic free television program service license and/or a domestic pay television program service license before the commencement of its mobile television operations," the company said in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

It said "the originally scheduled launch date of its...mobile television service around 1 July 2014 will be postponed."

Dead end

Wong later told reporters the decision had forced his company into a dead end. "I don't know when, or whether, HKTV can really launch its television service," he said.

HKTV's free-to-air television license bid was rejected last October, although two other companies' bids were granted, sparking week-long protests by thousands of people outside government offices in the central business district.

Cheung Chi-keung, who heads a U.S.-based association of Hong Kong Chinese, said that the former British colony had been promised that its traditional freedoms would continue unchanged for 50 years following the 1997 handover to China.

But that 50-year period was already up, he told RFA.

Former Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau was seriously injured last month following a knife attack outside a restaurant in Hong Kong's Chai Wan district as he got out of his car in broad daylight, by two unidentified men wielding meat cleavers.

The attack sparked press freedom protests by thousands of people.

"The policy of the Chinese government is to gradually clamp down on freedom of expression in Hong Kong," Cheung said. "C.Y.Leung does what they say, because he is a [ruling Chinese] Communist Party member himself."

"They are growing in confidence and their ability to control things is increasing."

Too long to wait

He said Beijing was sending a message to Hong Kong that 50 years is too long to wait to ensure that freedom of expression in Hong Kong and its political system, converge with that on the mainland.

He said mass protests on the territory's streets would make little difference in the long run.

"Under the mighty power of the Chinese Communist Party, protest has little power to effect change," Cheung said.

Lau's ouster, together with other high-profile staffing changes at major news organizations in recent weeks, have prompted journalists and rights groups in Hong Kong to protest against what they say is self-censorship meant to avoid angering Beijing.

Lau, who was known for hard-hitting political reporting, received extensive surgery on his lungs and legs following the attack, which involved a deep wound to his back and two to his legs.

Lau was removed from his post in January and later replaced by an editor from Malaysia seen as less challenging to Beijing, prompting protests by staff who said the paper's editorial independence was under threat.

Under Lau's editorship, the Ming Pao had run several reports on the death in police custody of veteran Chinese dissident Li Wangyang, who the authorities claim committed suicide.

Last June, employees of the tabloid Apple Daily newspaper, and the publisher of a magazine that published outspoken coverage of stories across the internal border in mainland China, suffered a number of physical attacks, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at the time.

Increasing concern

Several thousand protesters marched to government headquarters last month amid increasing concern among journalists that fear of angering Beijing is hampering the territory's media.

Journalists who joined the rally warned of a "darkening climate of self-censorship" against a backdrop of physical violence and interference by officials and corporations.

Liberal scholars are barred from appearing in some papers, headlines critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government are removed, while "sensitive" photos are edited from papers before they go to press, the HKJA said in a recent statement.

The growing concerns over press freedom come amid a political debate over universal suffrage.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, allows for full universal suffrage to take place in 2017 and 2020, and this clause was confirmed in an interpretation by China's parliament, which has ultimate power in the matter, in 2007.

But many analysts expect Beijing to back away from universal suffrage for 2017, and for legislative elections in 2020.

Recent public polls have shown the majority of Hong Kong's citizens are in favor of more democracy, but the territory's pro-democracy politicians have remained divided on the practicalities of such an election.

Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by C.K. for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.