For decades, Hong Kong has had two free-to-air channels, each broadcasting one English-language and one Cantonese channel. Recently, the Executive Council decided to increase the number, but their decision has provoked sharp public criticism.

According to the newsletter of Charles Mok--a LegCo member of representing the IT Functional Constituency and longtime CWHK contributor: "The Executive Council decided to approve in principle new domestic free TV licenses to Fantastic TV (under Cable TV) and HK Television Entertainment (under PCCW), but not Ricky Wong's Hong Kong Television Network (HKTVN)."

Mok's conclusion? "The government has failed the Hong Kong people again," he wrote.

IT workers sacked

Wong, a charismatic entertainment-industry figure, reportedly spent in excess of HK$1 billion in the expectation that he would receive a license. Some say that's risky, but in today's volatile tech and entertainment climate, risk is a given. Startups are risky, but that doesn't stop Cyberport and HKSTP from helping develop them.

Why? Because IT is one of the six pillars of Hong Kong's industry. Technology benefits from our strengths: unfettered Net access, bandwidth, and the rule of law. Tech products and services aren't dependent on raw materials, but innovation and entrepreneurship--it's a natural fit for the HKSAR.

Yet licenses were given to iCable and PCCW, while HKTVN's denial meant the firm had to trim most of its staff. Mok: "HKTVN announced the layoff of 320 staff members, including some of its IT people."

Why was Wong confident enough to sink such a large sum into a media platform without an existing license?

Explanation requested

Mok writes that in mid-2011, the former Broadcasting Authority had "recommended to ExCo to grant licenses to all three applicants, hence increasing the number of domestic free television operators from two to five." But Mok adds that "a consultancy report suddenly overrode the previous decision by the regulator, citing a 'basket' of factors, to reject one of the applicants, HKTVN."

Mok further writes that "the government has repeatedly used last-minute consultancy reports that are not released to the public to abruptly change policy directions."

Abrupt changes in policy are not business-friendly, nor do they inspire confidence among the public. At a minimum, the decision to exclude HKTVN cost 320 workers their jobs and is a blow to Hong Kong's IT profile. But it's also become an issue that not only refuses to fade, but continues to grow. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers protested last Sunday, demanding the government explain its controversial decision.

Creativity stifled

Television not only provides jobs, but allows a means of creative expression. Before television became dominant, the Hong Kong film industry provided Asia and the world with films that are still cherished by cinephiles around the globe. Earlier films are more than mere entertainment--Hong Kong's Celestial Pictures oversees and distributes the Shaw Brothers film library, and many of these films document Hong Kong as it existed then. The films don't merely preserve our film history, but parts of our overall history. A scene shot in Central in the 1960s provokes a loud gasp from an audience when the scene appears on the big screen at the Hong Kong Film Festival, or at the cinema inside the Hong Kong Film Archive--as the changes in our cityscape are revealed on celluloid.

Denying an extra outlet limits possibilities for exhibition of films showcasing Hong Kong's past and present. That's why Hong Kong's Director's Guild gave a press conference to discuss the HKTV license-denial--filmmakers including Ng See-yuen (3`), Derek Yee Tung-shing (>¬^) and Alfred Cheung Kin-ting (5­) questioned the decision publicly.

Hong Kong films are part of its heritage, and television stations in the HKSAR often show them--in Cantonese, and often with Chinese and English subtitles. Local films demonstrate Chinese culture and many Westerners have a better understanding of Hong Kong and greater China because of the local film industry.

Lack of transparency

"Hong Kong's communications industry has always benefitted from the government's open and objective policy decision mechanism," wrote Mok, who called for the government to "disclose the reasons for its decision and not use [the] 'ExCo confidentiality clause' as its defence. Otherwise, our rule of law will be relegated to the rule of one man, not to mention that it will be a slap on the face to all of us who want to develop our creative industry."

As Mok pointed out, ExCo has a confidentiality clause. But Hong Kong's creative industries and myriad IT vectors have been affected by what appears to be a capricious awarding of broadcast licenses. Along with many others, I believe the government should step forward and explain their rationale.

Reconsider the decision

And I also believe the government should reverse their decision and issue a license to HKTVN. Are we so shuttered in our judgements that we cannot stand another television station to air opinions? We are not. Hong Kongers are perfectly capable of deciding what they want to watch on television, and if the former Broadcasting Authority recommended to ExCo that HKTVN be granted a license, then that decision should be examined. Issuing the license would be in keeping with public opinion--much as the policy-reversal on "national education" last year also reflected the will of the people.

Perhaps HKTV will air Hong Kong films that may have no other outlet. It's the least the HKSAR government can do for an industry which has helped put Hong Kong on the map. Perhaps HKTV will air more shows subtitled in English. This may help reverse the slide in Hong Kong's English-language standards. Perhaps HKTV will air talk shows where controversial opinions are aired. That's what happens in a free society--and as ever, OFTA will oversee processes and handle public complaints if offensive programming is aired. These processes have been in place for decades.

If public policy is increasingly determined by "consultancy reports," then Hong Kongers will lose faith in the integrity of those public policies. Hong Kong is not governed by consultants, but by government officials who--in a few years time--will be elected by universal suffrage.

It's time for the administration to come clean on this particular issue and start putting more effort into boosting Hong Kong's IT and creative industries, rather than holding them back.