HK media under fire over Taiwan and WHO membership

Broadcaster under fire from government for asking a question over the island's WHO representation

by KG Chan
HK media under fire over Taiwan and WHO membership
China has been using its sway over the WHO to block Taiwan’s bid to join the UN agency, saying only sovereign states can be members. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong’s media is embroiled in a row over Taiwan’s controversial exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO).

A member of Hong Kong’s government-backed media asked a legitimate question to a World Health Organization official about why Taiwan had been frozen out at a time when the global community needed to fight a common cause – the rampaging novel coronavirus. 

Now Hong Kong’s government and Radio Television Hong Kong, or RTHK, the city’s public broadcaster, have clashed over a recent video interview with the WHO’s Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward that touched upon Taiwan’s representation in the United Nations agency on global public health. 

Aylward appeared to pretend not to hear a question about whether Taiwan should have its own membership of the global body before the video call was abruptly cut off. The Canadian physician-epidemiologist again dodged the question when the link was re-established.

The following day, the WHO issued a statement saying the question of Taiwan’s membership was a matter for WHO member states, not its staff.

clip of the interview instantly went viral on social media, with netizens mocking the official and lambasting the WHO’s meek stance to toe Beijing’s line on Taiwan amid the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic.

WHO’s Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward appeared to pretend he could not hear the question about Taiwan during the interview.
  • WHO’s Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward appeared to pretend he could not hear the question about Taiwan during the interview.

RTHK’s management dismissed the government’s claim that the interview aired last week breached the public broadcaster’s charter. Employees with the station also urged officials to respect their editorial autonomy, which is also stipulated in the RTHK charter. 

A statement from the Hong Kong government alleged that last weekend’s episode of RTHK’s English-language program The Pulse had breached the “one China” principle and “the purposes and mission of RTHK as a public service broadcaster.”

The government insisted that RTHK must not deviate from the understanding that WHO membership was only for sovereign states, and the Director of Broadcasting, who oversaw RTHK’s operations, “should be responsible for this.”

Protests were also been staged outside RTHK’s headquarters in Kowloon as petitioners from the pro-Beijing camp demanded the broadcaster sack the host of the program. 

“We represent all Hongkongers to demand the Director of Broadcasting punish the reporter in order to warn other staff that the public service broadcaster can’t become an anti-government station,” read a banner. 

But in its own statement refuting these allegations, RTHK stressed that the program was a wide-ranging one rather than an interview about Taiwan only, and the island was referred to as a “place” and not a “country.”

Government slammed 

“When you look at the interview done by the Pulse reporter, it is about the coronavirus issue, it is about health. I don’t really understand why when a reporter is asking something relating to health, she or he has to remember there is ‘One Country, Two Systems’ or ‘one China’ … in line with the government or China,” said an advisor who sits on the board of the broadcaster.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has also slammed Hong Kong’s government for reprimanding RTHK simply because it pressed the WHO on the island’s membership.

“It’s a disgrace to see this is happening to Hong Kong, a place that used to shine as a beacon of press freedom in East Asia,” Wu tweeted during the weekend.

The already frayed ties between China and Taiwan have plunged to new lows following mutual recriminations from both sides as the pneumonic plague rages on. Taiwan’s labeling of the contagious pathogen as “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” as well as its mask export ban have incurred Beijing’s ire. 

While continuing its ban on exports to China, the island said last week that it would donate no less than 10 million masks to the United States and European countries, now that its domestic supplies had stabilized. Combating the virus would require joint efforts, even though it continued to be shut out by the WHO and China, a Taiwan official said. 

Taiwan was also shipping 100,000 masks per week to the US, its unofficial ally, under a bilateral epidemic prevention cooperation agreement, according to Taiwan’s foreign ministry.

The US State Department has also renewed its call for Taiwan to receive observer status in the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly, adding that the island’s model for fighting Covid-19 could benefit countries around the world.

“Taiwan has a role to play in global health and should be a World Health Assembly observer,” the department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs tweeted.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would push for an “appropriate role” for Taiwan at the WHA – the policy-setting body of the WHO.