Olympics: A curious switch at RTHK

Last night, a staffer at Radio Television Hong Kong told me that he is worried about the timing of the appointment of a new head for RTHK. An official government announcement Thursday, the day before the Olympic Games open, said that 65-year-old Franklin Wong Wah-kay will become RTHK’s new head. A long-time Hong Kong government bureaucrat under the British, Wong has a solid track record at RTHK, a broadcaster that plays a similar role to that of the BBC. He has worked in many places in Asia, including Singapore and Beijing, where in 2004 he launched a documentary company called CultureLink.

RTHK prides itself on its editorial independence, something that was not always the case under the British, where it was seen for decades as the government’s mouthpiece. Over the years it managed to grow beyond that, and by the time the British left Hong Kong in 1997, RTHK was seen as a solid, if stolid, source of news in English and Cantonese.

RTHK needed a new leader because the last one, Chu Pui-hing, resigned in July 2007 when he was caught outside a karaoke bar with a hostess by Hong Kong’s very aggressive paparazzi. RTHK staff wondered why it took a year to make the choice to replace Chu, a bland choice at that, and then announce it on the day before what would be a virtual black hole for news other than the Olympics. Also, even after a year of deciding, Wong’s appointment remains an interim solution–he will only serve 30 months before stepping down.

The issue is serious because RTHK has come under some threat in the years after China resumed control. “We’re like the canary in the coal mine. If we knuckle under to government control, you can count on a lot of other media in Hong Kong doing the same thing,” was the way it was put to me.

In May 2007, CPJ wrote to Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang expressing concern about a plan to establish a government public service broadcaster, a concept that could eventually do away with RTHK–which could be interpreted as the death of the coal mine canary. Hong Kong’s dynamic media have remained remarkably resilient since 1997, even though there is constant talk of pressure coming down from Beijing on the media as well as Hong Kong’s political and economic life. The pressure is real, but for now, the greater concern is the media’s tabloid herd mentality, an obsession with the marvelously tacky lives of entertainers and an “if it bleeds it leads” newsroom mentality. That mix gets even more distorted by a growing concentration of ownership, a lot of the money coming from sources with ties to the mainland.

The question in the air last night was: Will Wong be the man to oversee the dismantling of RTHK, or is he just standing in for 30 months as the government contemplates whether it really wants to keep a feisty and independent news source as ties with the central government in Beijing grow closer?

(Reporting from Hong Kong)