HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s main public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), dropped a 24-hour BBC World Service channel from its airwaves Monday, replacing it with state radio from China in what critics say is a sign of encroaching Chinese control in the former British colony.
Tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing’s ruling Communist Party leaders have grown in recent years, particularly over the “Occupy” civil disobedience movement in 2014 when tens of thousands of protesters, demanding full democracy, blocked roads for 79 days.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula.
An online petition, titled “RTHK: Give us back our BBC World Service,” had been signed by nearly 1,000 people in a bid to keep the British broadcaster’s round-the-clock programming, saying the switch will make Hong Kong “feel more parochial and inward-looking.”
However, RTHK went ahead with scrapping the exclusive BBC channel at midnight Sunday. Instead, China National Radio — a state-run outlet carrying no sensitive or critical reporting on China — will be broadcast on its own RTHK channel.
The broadcasts are mostly in Mandarin, rather than the city’s main Cantonese dialect.
Amen Ng, a spokeswoman for RTHK, said earlier there were no political considerations in the decision and said the Chinese broadcaster would enhance cultural exchanges.
She said there will still be BBC World Service broadcasts, although only overnight from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and occasionally on weekends.
Other RTHK staff said the move was forced through without broader consultation.
“Nobody knew anything about it. We were told in a meeting just before it was announced,” said a senior RTHK editorial employee who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“People see it as a negative thing. The BBC is generally regarded as independent, and (Chinese) state media is not,” he said.
Some listeners said the move could hurt RTHK’s trusted place in the public eye with its self-professed mission for editorial independence, not unlike the BBC after which it was modeled.
“I’m quite disappointed. It’s a shame but I don’t know what we can do, seriously,” said Dorothy Tang, an IT consultant.
Others said the move is in line with a gradual “mainlandization” of Hong Kong that has seen Beijing’s creeping influence in many sectors, including local government, law enforcement, politics, education, the judiciary and the media.
Gladys Chiu, the head of RTHK’s program staff union, said there have been several recent incidents that had challenged RTHK’s editorial independence, including staff being heckled by pro-Beijing voices on radio talk-shows and at public forums.
“Sometimes the pressure is very direct,” Chiu said.
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