A file photo of RTHK's office in Hong Kong. Image: Facebook

Hong Hong’s public broadcaster RTHK faces a reshuffle of senior figures as a review of its operations was released by the government, but a union official said it had been stripped of its editorial independence.

The government has appointed an administrative officer to replace Leung Ka-wing as the new Director of Broadcasting and lead the public broadcaster, which produced a series of investigative reports and shows about the anti-extradition protests in 2019.

Patrick Li Pak-chuen, 52, the Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs, will succeed Leung on March 1 and become the next director of Broadcasting and editor-in-chief of RTHK, according to a statement released by the government on Friday.

Leung’s contract was due to expire in August, but it was ended early by mutual consent. The government said it had earlier conducted an open recruitment exercise but could not find a suitable candidate to fill the Director of Broadcasting post.

Li was a seasoned Administrative Officer with proven leadership and management skills and would ensure that RTHK fully abided by its charter, said Patrick Nip, the Secretary for the Civil Service.

The change was announced shortly before the government released a review report on the governance and management of RTHK on Friday.

The report covers six areas – mechanisms for editorial management and complaints handling, performance measurement and evaluation, management of RTHK’s workforce, financial management, stores and procurement, as well as information technology management.

The report said RTHK lacked transparency in dealing with public complaints as it only disclosed the number received but did not explain how they were handled.

“To objectively and impartially evaluate RTHK’s performance and program quality, we should examine whether it can fully abide by its mission and roles as stipulated in the Charter,” Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said in a media briefing on Friday.

“The report has identified quite a number of inadequacies in RTHK’s governance and management. RTHK needs to make improvements in its system and execution.”

Yau said RTHK should establish a clear and transparent editorial process and strengthen editorial training to ensure all its staff and program production personnel have a full and comprehensive understanding of its public purposes and mission as a public service broadcaster.

RTHK’s TV station in Kowloon Tong. Photo: Google Maps

The government’s review report was comprehensive and fair, said Eugene Chan, a former chairman of RTHK’s Board of Advisers. RTHK and the advisers could have worked more closely on the public broadcaster’s program standards and quality, he said.

Gladys Chiu, the chairwoman of RTHK’s Programme Staff Union, said the government’s review report about RTHK’s performance was incorrect as it missed the fact that RTHK had set up a system to handle public complaints in 2011.

Chiu also said it was unfair to accuse RTHK of hiring too many contract staff as the station had been understaffed for years.

The union also expressed concern about some of the recommendations made in the review, including putting in place a more documented and structured system for senior management to make decisions on difficult or contentious editorial issues. It said such a system could prevent RTHK from delivering breaking news quickly and accurately.

Chiu said the appointment of bureaucrat Patrick Li, who has no experience in broadcasting, as RTHK’s editor-in-chief had stripped the station of its editorial independence. She said the government was trying to replace RTHK’s professionalism with bureaucracy.

“We are afraid that Li’s background and knowledge of the media industry might not be sufficient,” Chiu said, adding that someone from the journalism field would have been a better choice.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement that it was deeply concerned by the government’s review report, which urged RTHK to improve its governance and editorial management.

It said it was worried that the government would tighten its control on the public broadcaster, which should serve the Hong Kong people with editorial autonomy but not become an official mouthpiece.

Political commentator Yau Ching-yuen said on his YouTube channel that Leung’s removal was not surprising, but it happened earlier than expected.

Yau said the Hong Kong government could have waited several more months until Leung’s contract expired in August, but it chose to sack him before July 1, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.

Yau said Leung had tried to fulfill the demands from the pro-Beijing camp while safeguarding the principles of press freedom during his term, but he still failed to complete his contract.

Yau said Leung’s removal, together with the arrest of Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai, showed that Beijing would continue to tighten its control over Hong Kong’s media.

Police lead Hong kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai (C), 72, away from his home after he was arrested under the new national security law in Hong kong on August 10, 2020. Photo: AFP/Vernon Yuen

Last week, the National Radio and Television Administration, China’s broadcasting regulator, said that BBC World News was not allowed to continue its service within Chinese territory as it failed to meet the government’s requirements.

The ban came after the British broadcasting regulator early this month canceled the license of Beijing-backed CGTN.

RTHK said on February 12 that it would stop relaying the BBC World Service. Leung said later that the decision was purely made by him without any pressure from the Hong Kong government.

RTHK had received thousands of complaints after it produced two investigative reports about the 2019 Yuen Long attack during a period of social unrest.

In the evening of July 21, 2019, hundreds of men wearing white shirts gathered in Yuen Long MTR station and attacked passengers, some of whom were going home from a protest march on Hong Kong Island.

Thugs at Yuen Long MTR Station. Photo: Facebook screen-grab / The Stand News

In October 2019, RTHK’s Hong Kong Connection published an investigative report titled 721 Yuen Long Nightmare, accusing the Hong Kong Police Force of mishandling the Yuen Long attack. Last October, it published a follow-up report titled 7.21 Who Owns the Truth.

On November 3 last year, RTHK producer Choy Yuk-ling, who worked on programs about the Yuen Long attack, was arrested for allegedly violating the Road Traffic Ordinance in some car plate searches.

Leung said he was worried that the arrest would have a chilling effect on journalists. He said RTHK would not alter its editorial principles or stop investigative reporting.

Last May, RTHK announced it was suspending the production of its satirical show Headliner, which mocked the police for failing to do their duty in the Yuen Long attack.

RTHK said it apologized to anyone offended by the program. The announcement came shortly after the Communications Authority issued the public broadcaster with a warning for “denigrating and insulting” the police in an episode of Headliner.

Separately, RTHK last month terminated the civil service contract of Nabela Qoser, a journalist with the public broadcaster, who had grilled Chief Executive Carrie Lam with tough questions about the Yuen Long attack in a media briefing in 2019.

Qoser was offered a 120-day temporary contract while an internal investigation into complaints about her reporting was reopened. On January 28, more than 60 RTHK employees protested at the station’s headquarters against the treatment of Qoser.

Read: HK reporter’s arrest latest blow to press freedom