ATV, a Hong Kong television station in the midst of a business deal with one of China’s largest investment firms, hurriedly buckled under Monday in the face of public inquiry and said it would run a recorded political chat show it had suddenly cancelled Sunday for mysterious reasons.
The Asia Sentinel in its Feb. 4 edition reported exclusively that ATV had cancelled its airing of Newsline, an English-language chat show, raising concerns about the possibility that Beijing objected to the show or that the station was merely politically timid.
The cancellation left the moderator, Michael Chugani, and both participants, lawmakers Allen Lee and Albert Ho, in the dark about why the show had been removed from the air.
Although no station officials were available for comment Sunday, Chugani referred questions to Gilbert Au in the station’s public relations department on Monday.
“Asked why the show had been cancelled, Au first replied that “transmission difficulties” were responsible. Asked how transmission difficulties could be responsible if the show was taped, he asked to hang up and said he would reply by either telephone or email. He later called back to say that the show had been delayed by technical problems with the taping of the show, but that the station’s technicians had managed to fix the tape, and it is to be broadcast on Feb. 11.
Asked what happened, lawmaker Allen Lee said: “I think you know what happened. I wouldn’t blame Michael Chugani. I understand a lot more people know what happened,” Lee would not comment further, but his brief statement was a clear indication that he believed the station had got cold feet in showing a program with two politicians not embraced by the government in Beijing.
Albert Ho was unavailable for comment.
ATV is also dealing with a sensitive issue. The station has recently sold 22 percent of its shares to Citic Guoan Group, a Shenzhen Stock Exchange-listed company partly owned by Citic Pacific, the major Chinese government-linked investment group. The Citic deal has also led to a delay in a planned IPO by ATV.
Although the Broadcasting Authority in Hong Kong has been informed and government approval is pending, the transaction could breach ownership rules which bar non-local shareholders from owning more than 10 percent of a local free-to-air company without the approval of Hong Kong's chief executive.
ATV’s Chinese-language news programming has consistently hewed close to political positions taken in Beijing although the English-language programs, including Newsline, have largely been left alone. Chugani said in an interview that he is leaving ATV, although he will continue for a few weeks as moderator of the Newsline show.
Press freedom has been a major concern in Hong Kong ever since the takeover of the former British crown colony in 1997. Although China generally has kept its hands off the territory’s media, Hong Kong’s cautious property and media empires have shied away from either investing in or supporting independent reporting. Investment banks, for instance, have shied away from underwriting public offerings for Apple Daily, the successful openly anti-Beijing newspaper owned by media maverick Jimmy Lai.
The smaller of Hong Kong’s two non-cable broadcasters, ATV offers a 24-hour Cantonese-language home channel and a 22-hour English-language world channel as well as a satellite pay TV service. It also broadcasts on the North American continent and is allowed by Chinese authorities to beam its signal into the mainland, a fact that keeps it extremely wary of controversy. Liu Changle, the chief executive officer of4 Phoenix Satellite Television, owns a controlling interest. ATV CEO Chang Wing-Lee, also owns a significant interest.
Despite the fact that mystified ATV staff personnel have no idea of what “technical difficulties” could have resulted in cancelling the show, other observers said management’s concerns about Beijing likely played a role.
“Beijing doesn’t like Allen Lee,” said an observer. Lee, 67, a senior member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, is one of the founders of Liberal Party. He resigned simultaneously from his seat in the National People’s Congress in Beijing and his job as a radio host in 2004, complaining that he was unable to express himself freely as host of Teacup in the Storm, a radio show on Commercial Radio. He resigned, he said, because he was under pressure from pro-Beijing businessmen for being critical of the government in Beijing.
Albert Ho is similarly viewed with less than charity in Beijing, or certainly at ATV. Born in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, in 1951, Ho is a politician and solicitor who was elected to Hong Kong’s toothless legislative council. He is secretary general of a group called the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and is the chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.
In August last year, Ho was attacked and beaten in a Hong Kong restaurant unidentified men using baseball bats. It was the first attack on a pro-democracy legislator since the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government in 1997.
More here: Blank Air in Hong Kong