The chairman of Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK’s board of advisers has declined to comment on its decision to extend the probation period of a journalist known for her confrontational approach.
Former pro-establishment lawmaker Lam Tai-fai, who was appointed to head up the board last month, also emphasised the importance of the broadcaster abiding by its governing charter, following a series of controversies surrounding its programming.
The charter includes, among other major principles, a duty to engender a sense of citizenship and national identity through programmes that contribute to the understanding of the country and promote the concept of “one country, two systems”.
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Lam said members of the board of advisers had discussed the charter in the first meeting of their new term on Monday.
“There were different understandings and interpretations about the charter,” he said. “But just like driving, if you don’t abide by the rules and the traffic lights, there will be accidents. This would affect RTHK and Hong Kong.”
Assistant programme officer Nabela Qoser, who works for the government-funded broadcaster, has until Tuesday to either accept an extension of her three-year probation as a civil servant by another 120 days from October 2, or leave her post, a source revealed on Sunday.
The source also revealed that an investigation into the journalist had been reopened based on complaints made by members of the public against her from July to November last year.
Qoser, who formerly worked with the Chinese-language TVB Jade channel and Ming Pao Daily, became known for her rapid-fire, often blunt questioning of officials over their handling of the city’s anti-government protests last year.
Her confrontational approach was praised by many, but a number of complaints were also made by members of the public against her.
Last year’s polarising protests made RTHK a lightning rod for public criticism, particularly from the pro-establishment camp. The broadcaster is presently the subject of a management review led by civil servants after a series of controversies over its programming.
But Lam said the board did not discuss Qoser’s case on Monday.
“I noticed that Qoser and the government did not comment on it in particular either,” Lam said. “I am not in a good position to comment about her employment situation, as this is not within the scope of the board’s work.”
Lam also said he had “very little knowledge” about whether the government’s employment system and procedures were fair or not.
“I think it’s common that [employers and employees] just come together when they match each other, and part ways when they don’t,” he said. “So I think [RTHK and Qoser] can handle it better through communication – sit down and talk. Communication can solve any problem.”
Lam said rather than commenting on an individual employee’s contract situation, the board’s job was to advise RTHK and its management on whether it had fulfilled its public goals and missions, as stated in its charter, as well as whether the information it provided was fair and balanced.
Speaking on the sidelines of the a Legislative Council meeting on Monday, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah, whose portfolio covers public broadcasting, also declined to comment on RTHK’s decision to extend Qoser’s probation period.
“All government departments have their own policy to establish staff performance, promotion and other staffing matters. It’s inappropriate for me to comment,” Yau said.
Speaking before the board’s meeting on Monday, RTHK Programme Staff Union chairwoman Gladys Chiu Sin-yan said she will be meeting RTHK chief Leung Ka-wing on Monday afternoon to voice the union’s concern.
“When a closed investigation can be reopened like this, the purpose was quite obvious to us … We believe that this is political suppression,” she said.
“This was not an individual case either … When it is insufficient or unacceptable for a reporter to ask questions and seek the truth without any personal abuse, our entire media ecosystem will be changed.”
Chiu said that previous assessments of Qoser’s work contained no suggestions that she was not competent.
“There were six assessments in the three-year probation period, and there was no record of her not being capable,” she said.
After a meeting with senior management on Monday, Chiu said the union remained unconvinced by their reasons for reopening the investigation into the complaints against Qoser.
“We were told that the new assessment would place bigger emphasis on the temperament, personal characteristics and conduct of the staff member concerned, as required by new guidelines issued by the Civil Service Bureau in August,” she said.
“But such areas should have been covered by Qoser’s appraisal reports during her three years’ probation.”
Chiu also urged RTHK management to take into account the amount of praise Qoser had received.
The furore over Qoser’s probation is just the latest in a string of controversies at the beleaguered broadcaster.
In May, the Communications Authority warned RTHK over an episode of the satirical television show Headliner on February 14 that portrayed police as rubbish, and implied they hoarded masks and other personal protective equipment at the expense of the medical sector during the coronavirus pandemic.
RTHK chief Leung Ka-wing initially defended the show, but the station later offered a public apology after the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau ordered it to take disciplinary action against staff responsible for breaches of the code.
The political show, which ran for 30 years, was suspended when its season ended in June.
The advisory board’s Lam, also a local delegate to China’s top political advisory body, noted on Monday that it was “not ideal” for RTHK to be warned by the authority over some of its programmes.
“But RTHK has a very good foundation and very good talent, I believe that it has a bright future. Both the board and RTHK would like the broadcaster to do better and better,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung