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Hong Kong unlicensed pro-democracy radio station goes off-air

HONG KONG, CHINA — A Hong Kong radio station that has aired pro-democracy shows without a licence for nearly 18 years held its last broadcast on Friday, citing difficulties operating in a “dangerous” political landscape.

Founded by veteran activist Tsang Kin-shing in 2005, Citizens’ Radio began as an act of civil disobedience against Hong Kong’s public broadcasting laws, which he and fellow activists criticised as overly restrictive of public access to the airwaves.

In its early years, the station aired phone-in talk shows where prominent opposition figures sometimes appeared as guests, tapping into a culture of spirited political commentary.

But Tsang, nicknamed Bull, said Friday that Citizens’ Radio had had trouble inviting guests in light of Beijing’s tightening grip.

“Hong Kong’s political situation today has fallen off a cliff,” Tsang, 67, told reporters before the final show, recorded in a cluttered studio within an industrial building.

“If we invite guests, they may not be able to speak freely, because there are so many red lines.”

Tsang added that the station could not pay rent beyond August after its bank account was blocked from receiving donations.

After massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing imposed a national security law that critics say has silenced dissent and curtailed political freedoms.

More than 250 people – including activists, lawmakers and journalists – have been arrested under the security law and three major pro-democracy media outlets have shuttered under pressure.

“I believe in the future, in Hong Kong, it will be hard to have this kind of civil disobedience again,” Tsang said of his radio station.

Civil disobedience

While Citizens’ Radio has not been targeted under the security law, its open defiance of Hong Kong’s broadcasting rules meant it had been embroiled in government lawsuits for years.

After their broadcasting licence application was denied, the station set up its own FM transmitters atop the city’s famous Lion Rock mountain.

Tsang estimated he and others paid HK$60,000 ($7,700) in fines over the years, and the station had its studio raided and its equipment confiscated by officials more than once.

“I believe the airwaves are a public resource, and should not just belong to the commercial sector or the government,” he said on Friday.

But Tsang’s attempts to challenge Hong Kong’s broadcasting regulations hit a dead-end after his case was dismissed by the top court in 2017.

Emily Lau, former chair of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and occasional guest on Citizens’ Radio, said the station contributed to a once-vibrant media scene.

“(The closure) is another reminder that Hong Kong people are really losing many of the things that we used to have,” Lau told AFP.

“Now in Hong Kong, you have to look very hard to find channels where people can express their views freely.”

Despite its high-profile legal battles, Citizens’ Radio has been described as a fringe outlet and the size of its audience remained unclear.

Tsang said every day of broadcasting was “an act of resistance”, regardless of audience numbers.

Hong Kong’s Office of the Communications Authority declined to comment on the station’s shutdown, except to say that the station runs only on the internet.

Tsang on Friday gathered some of the station’s hosts for a final hour of laughs and commiseration, and together they bowed to thank their supporters.

“We thank the Hong Kong public, who are clear-eyed and clear-headed,” Tsang said.

“Eighteen years is not a short time.”


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