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Officials target Hong Kong public radio

Pro-Beijing forces say that the station, which patterns itself after the BBC, is not respectful enough.

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A quiet battle over whether the only free and independent broadcaster on the land mass of China will remain so is intensifying. Over a 77-year span, Hong Kong public radio has dished out a blend of credible news and cultural programming in three languages, served as a link between expatriates and the Hong Kong street, and has gained increasing editorial autonomy and respect in China's most sophisticated city.

Yet that is exactly what bothers influential pro-Beijing forces who wish media to more fully trumpet government policies. Many of them see Radio Television Hong Kong, or "RTHK" as it is popularly known, as an irritant at best and a damaging critic at worst - allowing a broad range of opinion, including mild satire and programs that may challenge official proposals, all at taxpayer expense.

The basic issue: Will RTHK be cut, restricted, or turned into a cheerleader for government policies? Or will it evolve into a subsidized but separate identity, similar to the BBC or Channel 4 in London?

One distinct difference between the climate of Hong Kong and that of mainland China, is freedom of expression, experts say.

"If our independence is harmed, it affects the overall climate of freedom here," says Francis Moriarty, who heads the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club press freedom committee, and is an RTHK staffer. "If RTHK is doing hard-hitting stories, others have to work hard, too. In a Hong Kong context, we are the canary in the mineshaft. If our independence is under attack, everybody's is under attack."

Last January brought an abrupt announcement that RTHK would be reviewed by a seven-member commission, appointed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang, which will report in September.

The opening page of the commission review suggests that public broadcasting is an "intrusion" into the market. Moreover, only private media figures are involved in the review, making the team something like a "fox guarding the henhouse," as one local journalist put it, since RTHK competes with private stations.

Three audits in five years

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