Hong Kong's radio farce

14 Jan 2008

When it comes to telecom services and print media, Hong Kong citizens surely have more choice than anyone else in the world. I count five mobile operators, four fixed-line networks, two pay TV services and eight daily newspapers.

All of which makes the government's diffidence towards broadcast radio even harder to comprehend.

For those who've missed it, leadfooted Hong Kong authorities have been drawn into a confrontation with pro-Democrat lawmakers who have been broadcasting on an unlicensed FM frequency.

The prosecution against the Democrats collapsed when a magistrate found the Telecom Ordinance, under which the radio frequencies are regulated, was unconstitutional. The democrats have continued to broadcast in a defiance of a court injunction and now face a contempt of court charges.

"Sue me," say the legislators.

The government argues it can't issue more licenses because of a lack of frequencies. Currently it has made available spectrum for seven FM and eight AM stations. Because of the poor AM quality broadcasting across Hong Kong's difficult topography, two of the frequencies are unoccupied.

One of the legislators, Albert Cheng, pointed out in his weekend column that with digital audio broadcast (DAB) technology the city could have up to 280 radio stations.

The current law appears to be yet another hangover from colonial times. In contrast to the transparent telecom licensing process, broadcast licensees effectively enjoy their franchise at the Chief Executive's pleasure.

No system exists for introducing more choice for Hong Kong radio listeners. That's an anomaly in a free society. With today's range of digital and online technologies, it's farcical.

And unless the government moves to modernize its broadcast regulation, we are about to witness the farce of elected lawmakers prosecuted for making a speech on a Mongkok pavement.

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