Hong Kongers tune in to the scandal that is TV regulation.
PROTEST has become such a fixture of Hong Kong life that it has produced its own genre of fine art. “You can call me a protest painter,” Perry Dino tells me as he adds the finishing touches to his latest work. It is the 18th such event he’s captured on canvas since he started last year – which makes one wonder if the wider public might get weary of it all.
This, though, is not just another routine protest. The press is calling it a crisis for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. At issue is his decision not to award a television broadcasting licence to a new entrant, HKTV. The two successful bidders are controlled by billionaires Richard Li and Peter Woo. One concern is that their business interests on the mainland make them unlikely to allow their stations to stand up for democracy in Hong Kong – the lens through which the territory’s more restive residents view every move made by its elites.
But the decision has apparently also riled up less politicised segments of the population. Both successful bidders already run pay-TV channels. HKTV was seen as offering more diversity. Every night this week, Hong Kongers attending the protest have been treated to a sampling of the station’s programmes – so they know what the government is denying them. Dino says he supports the protest because he wants quality TV, and, from what he’s seen, HKTV can deliver it. “Like National Geographic,” he says.
The broadcast authority had recommended the issuing of three new licences, so it seems to ordinary Hong Kongers that the executive has chosen to enter their living rooms and denied them an additional free channel for no good reason.
“The operation of free-to-air television services is deeply linked to Hong Kong people’s quality of life, Hong Kong’s business environment and the development of its creative industries,” said the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in a statement expressing its deep concern. The academics called for “clear and transparent” criteria and standards, in line with the principles of a “fair and open society”.
The controversy highlights a problem that is all too common across Asia. Hong Kong is only exceptional in that its people are not taking it lying down.
The top-line trend over the past 20-odd years has been an explosion in TV choices for billions of Asians as government after government liberalised free-to-air, cable and satellite markets. Drill deeper, though, and we see a massive failure of stewardship among those in charge of TV policy. The allocation of licences has been marked by crony capitalism and secret backroom deals. Stations have ended up in the hands of businessmen who use them as vehicles to further their own corporate or political interests.
Thrilled to be free at last from the monopoly of deadly boring government stations, publics did not really care who was being handed lucrative operating licences. Policy elites in the grip of neoliberal ideology paid virtually no attention to the crucial question of how to regulate the new private players in the public interest.
Best practices articulated by international organisations like UNESCO and Article 19 state that licensing decisions should be made by independent regulators insulated from the influence of political leaders, applying processes that are fair, transparent and democratic – but such frameworks are virtually absent across Asia.
So, if C. Y. Leung chooses to dig in his heels, Hong Kong will have plenty of company in a region where opaque, unfair and unaccountable decisions are the norm in television regulation. But, if the protestors’ challenge is successful, the territory would provide an example that the rest of the continent can learn from.