What TV licensing decision means for Hong Kong media freedom

Summary:Refusal by the Hong Kong government to grant a license to operate free-to-air television services has been perceived to have wider implications, and Mainland China's influence, on the freedom of speech in the territory.

Hong Kong is passionate about its freedoms, perhaps now more than ever. Its residents look across the border to Mainland China and view China government's control of the press, the media, and online freedoms not as an interested neighbour, but rather with the concern such control is slowly making its way to Hong Kong. 

Never has this been more the case than over the last couple of weeks. The Hong Kong government was set to grant free-to-air television licenses, and while incumbent license holders PCCWand I-Cable Communications were in line for the licenses, as ever, there was a new player on the scene. Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) is a startup which promised to broadcast critical progamming across Hong Kong that reflected the realities of Hong Kong life.

This would mean no more Chinese historical dramas, no more programmes showing a "typical" Hong Kong family living in a spacious apartment on Hong Kong Island when the average apartment size is well under 1,000 square feet, and current affairs programming would not be afraid to be critical of the Hong Kong government and Mainland China.

HKTV was expected to be granted a license, breaking I-Cable and PCCW's monopoly on television in the region. However, the anticipated license was refused and the Hong Kong government has not given any reasons for the refusal. The decision was made by the Chief Executive in Council, and the content of Executive Council meetings is not made public.

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Did Mainland China influence Hong Kong's refusal to grant free-to-air TV license to HKTV?

The decision sparked protests across the region for two reasons. First, both I-Cable and PCCW are owned by well-known millionaires--I-Cable is controlled by the family of Peter Woom who has a net worth of US$8.1 billion largely made from real estate investiment in Hong Kong and China, while PCCW was founded by Richard Li, son of Li Ka-Shing who is Asia's richest man. Many Hong Kongers saw HKTV as a chance to have a broadcaster that was not owned and controlled by the rich. 

The second reason goes deeper into the heart of freedom of speech in Hong Kong. The refusal to provide reasons for the refusal to grant a license has raised suspicions that the influence of Mainland China is behind the decision, and that it reflects a desire in Beijing to slowly encroach upon media freedom in Hong Kong in an attempt to bring it in line with the ruling party's values. There is concern among the Chinese government, it is alleged, HKTV broadcasting may reflect some of the increasing anti-Mainland opinions of many Hong Kong citizens.

Is this justified? Tensions between Hong Kong and the Mainland are higher than they have ever been, and it is impossible to live or work in Hong Kong without being aware of this.

Beijing has already reported it must work to control new media to reinforce its policies and values, so are protesters in Hong Kong correct to believe the TV licensing debacle is the beginning of such reinforcement in Hong Kong?

The truth is that it remains to be seen, but the decision is a matter of concern. HKTV is seeking a judicial review of the decision, and this should be watched with great interest.

Hong Kong enjoys an independent judiciary, a concept quite alien to Mainland China. If the judiciary approves the decision, or worse, refers it to Beijing for consideration, then fears for media and online freedoms in Hong Kong will continue to grow.

Topics: Legal, Government : Asia, Hong Kong, Privacy

About

Paul is a partner in Pinsent Masons's outsourcing and technology group. He advises on projects "from cradle to grave", assisting with procurement, formation of contracts, running and maintenance of projects, risk management, and disputes. He has assisted clients on large scale IT and telecommunications matters in Hong Kong and Europe,... Full Bio

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