HKJA’s Submission on the Review of Public Service Broadcasting

1.)            The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) notes with concern that the government has set up a review committee to examine the future of public service broadcasting in Hong Kong. In particular it has raised anxiety among staff of the current public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) – some of whom are members of the HKJA.
PSB is a Necessity
2.)            Before going into specific issues of the review, we should stress unambiguously the importance of public service broadcasting (PSB) and its value to a civil society. This is particularly important when the government puts the review on a wrong footing.
3.)            The government background note dated January 17th 2006 queries in paragraphs 3 and 5 the value of PSB in the digital era and argues that it is a form of market intervention, if not distortion. The HKJA disagrees and worries that such a distorted view may hamper an open and fair review of PSB.
4.)            We maintain that PSB is an essential element of the media scene, even if the market environment is becoming ever more diversified. According to the recently published 2005 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), despite the co-existence of different models.
5.)            The provision of PSB not only benefits the media but society as a whole. As Abdul Waheed Khan, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information of the UNESCO, has stated: “PSB is an essential instrument to ensure plurality, social inclusion, and to strengthen the civil society.” This in turn will empower people to take informed decisions vital to their own development.
6.)            UNESCO defines PSB as broadcasting made, financed and controlled by the public, for the public. It is neither commercial nor state-owned. It should be free from political interference and pressure from commercial forces.
7.)            We further maintain that when combined with pluralism, programming diversity, editorial independence, appropriate funding, accountability and transparency, public service broadcasting can serve as a cornerstone of democracy.
A Flawed Review
8.)            The scope of the review is worrying. The Review Committee is focusing on such issues as the role and justifications for PSB, governance, funding, and ways to monitor the public broadcaster. The core value of public service broadcasting – freedom of expression and editorial independence – is excluded from the remit of the review. Without such core values, an open platform for diversified views will not be established and the public will not be fully informed.
9.)            Further, the HKJA believes the composition of the review committee is flawed. It lacks representatives who have wide experience of PSB. Indeed, five out of the seven committee members are representatives and former representatives of private-sector media organisations. It could be argued that there is a conflict of interest here – insofar as public broadcasters compete with the private sector in many areas.
A PSB for the Public
10.)        PSB is for the public. It is neither for the government nor the national interest, although such interests may be reflected among all other views. Serving the national interest, which is mentioned in paragraph 15 of the January 17th government note, in the Chinese context may well be equivalent to acting as a mouthpiece of the government, given the undemocratic nature of the system.
11.)        Furthermore, PSB is not only for minorities or elites, but for the whole population, as well as special groups. Therefore, asking the present public broadcaster to provide only programmes that are not provided by commercial broadcasters is ill-founded. On the contrary, competition between public and private broadcasters will drive improvement.
12.)        We urge the government and the review committee to strengthen the editorial independence of the public broadcaster. We regard the current arrangement, i.e. the renewal every two years of a framework agreement between the policy bureau and RTHK, as undesirable. The HKJA firmly believes that legislation upholding the autonomy and editorial independence of the public broadcaster in clear and unambiguous terms is vitally important.
13.)        Once independence and other core values are guaranteed by legislation, the public broadcaster may be asked to submit reports to the Legislative Council. This ensures a form of public accountability.
14.)        Equally important is the guarantee in legislation of the universality, diversity, distinctiveness and transparency of the PSB. Universality ensures that PSB can reach the whole population and distinctiveness sustains the value of the existence of PSB.
15.)        By advocating the statutory route, the HKJA has no intention of excluding the possibility of RTHK being corporatised. This was suggested by a government-funded review 20 years ago, but was ruled out by the central government before 1997. We think that it is a viable way to diminish the conflict for RTHK in being at the same time a government department and a public broadcaster. We note that public service broadcasters in many places, including the UK, Canada, Australia and India, are statutory corporations, and not government departments.
16.)        No matter which way forward is chosen, any attempt to erode the editorial independence of the public broadcaster will push it closer to becoming the mouthpiece of the government. Such a retrogressive step would marginalise the broadcaster and swing Hong Kong into an undemocratic position which would be in no one’s interest.
A PSB by the Public
17.)        A public broadcaster should be controlled and financed by and for the public. To make the public broadcaster accountable to the public, legislation may be introduced that creates a board of governors. Such a board should be independent of government and business pressure. As such, it should be elected through a democratic process, and not by the chief executive. In this process, citizens and citizen’s groups should play an active role in guiding and assisting the PSB to fulfill its mission.
18.)        The legislation setting up such a board should ensure that the governors are widely representative of the public. It should also specify that the board should at all times respect the principle of editorial independence, should not interfere in day-to-day decision-making and should never impose prior censorship.
19.)        It is also important to keep the public broadcaster financially independent. With control over RTHK’s budget, government influence can weaken the autonomy and editorial independence of the public broadcaster. To avoid this potential danger, the public broadcaster should diversify its funding sources. However, it should continue to receive government funding, which should be regularised and based on five to ten-year cycles. The government may also consider alternative methods of funding, such as providing a proportion of royalty payments made by commercial broadcasters.
20.)        RTHK should also be allowed to receive private donations with no strings attached, and funds from the sale of programming and memorabilia. This decreases pressure for greater levels of government funding, while maintaining the ability to produce high quality programming.
Public Access Channels
21.)        The Hong Kong Journalists Association holds the position that diversity is the basis for freedom. We have urged the government to allocate television channels and radio frequencies for the public to air their views, a position we expressed before 1995 when the government promised to set up a public access channel. Regrettably, the promise was never realised. We urge the government to take this opportunity to honour its promise.
22.)        With the digitalisation of broadcasting, we firmly believe that it is technically viable to establish public access channels. What we need is the political will of the administration. Although it may be more economical to have the public broadcaster operate such channels, the HKJA welcomes other viable proposals in this regard – on condition that the managing bodies of such broadcasters be widely representative so that programming bias is avoided.
HKJA Executive Committee
March 24th, 2006
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