Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Hazy Memories of Hong Kong Press Freedom

My column for Coconuts.co is called Palm Oil. It's bad for you but you might find yourself drawn back like a dog to it's vomit. Suck it and see. Originally ran here: http://hongkong.coconuts.co/2014/05/28/palm-oil-hazy-memories-hong-kongs-press-freedom


It must have been early December of 1996, although memories are hazy when it comes to the liver-shrivelling raving-loony fin-de-siecle days that marked the existence of a journalist in Hong Kong to cover the big story, Britain's looming colonial garage sale – or shotgun divorce.

My editor at Postmagazine, the glossy weekend read of South China Morning Post, where I had landed as senior writer and columnist, swished past my desk then stopped, turned and fixed my bloodshot, bleary eyes with her perfectly kohled laser gaze.

“Gaggers, something funny for the Christmas issue please. And I want a handover angle.”I scratched my head for a few minutes, gazed out the window for a few more, made myself a tepid instant coffee and chewed on my pen. A funny Christmas handover story, eh? As if they grew on trees.

With an almost audible 'clunk', the idea dropped fully-formed into my skull – no doubt the same one that has saved countless clueless feature writers staring down a 'silly season' blank page from a Christmas stuffing or the rough end of a humbug.

I would parody 'A Visit from St Nicholas', Clement Clarke-Moore's marzipan-dripping, good cheer-laced slice of festive doggerel that famously begins 'Twas the night before Christmas.'

In my version, the night before Christmas would be spent with Hong Kong's last Governor, Chris 'Fat Panda' Patten and Jiang Zemin, China's Brylcreemed supremo that was.

Full of zeal and hopeful of being in the pub by lunchtime, I bashed the thing out in short order –a silly flight of fancy which lurched from satire to surrealism to scatology, and ended with the Chinese leader
in his Rococo rest room, urinating from a great height on his imagined enemies and Colonial running dogs while pining for his 'Precious', namely, Hong Kong. I do more or less remember the final lines, which ran:

And as Jiang bestraddled his gilt-covered cistern,
He shouted to no-one: 'One Country, One System!'

The piece elicited a giggle and raised eyebrows from my editor, and caused a minor shitstorm at the editorial conference but with a few excesses pruned, the lampoon ran more or less as written.

Harmless satire? Or was I suggesting under cover of attemped humour that China's leader planned to renege on the Handover deal? 'One Country, Two Systems' was China's reunification slogan – a promise to allow Hong Kong to maintain its own government, courts, press and accustomed freedoms after 1997.

And was I implying that Jiang, leader of the world's oldest civilization, had not been properly toilet trained? Bathroom etiquette was a sensitive matter in Hong Kong in those days; a vast cultural chasm separated east and west, there were the squatters and the sitters, and never the twain would meet. Unless there were footprints on the toilet seat again, in which case all bets were off.

There is a point to this extended reminisce. The point is press freedom, and how in my Hong Kong heyday we took it for granted. Hong Kong was in the spotlight and on the world stage, I was working for what had been the world's most profitable newspaper and was still the region's most influential.

In the seven years I was at SCMP and for the three before that at the Hong Kong Standard and now-defunct Eastern Express, it never once occurred to me to censor my writing when its subject matter crossed the border, and nor did I. To the best of my recollection, no one ever asked me to either. I wasn't on the front line of daily political coverage, or the firing line that was the China Desk. But my writing did cut across China, inevitably, in all sorts of ways.

It saddens me to see how times have changed, with Hong Kong journalists despondent, diminished, wielding their own black censorship pens or joining the brown nose brigade at the Beijing Liaison Agency, with its paranoid apparatchiks, tattle-tales and quislings, coercers, rumor-mongers, lap dogs and parrots.

Fear of violence is a powerful persuader. To be a hack in Hong Kong today is to risk being hacked or chopped or bashed or beaten. The past year has seen an escalating series of attacks, first on media company offices and property, then on media owners, and now on journalists.

The most chilling was the ferocious chopper attack on February 26 upon the just-sacked long-time editor of Ming Pao, Kevin Lau, a true believer in freedom of the press who presided over some of the most uncompromising Chinese language reporting on the motherland. He was shunted aside without warning, replaced by an unknown and untested Malaysian, to the widespread protests of Ming Pao staff.

Chilling, too, the recent words of veteran journalist Shirley Yam, describing another day at the office:
“Headlines get added, complete pages removed, photos are cancelled, interviews are bought, columnists are sacked. We get calls from senior government officials, we get calls from tycoons, saying 'we don't want to see this in your paper'. It's sad and terrifying.”

Of course, everything is relative. Hong Kong may have slipped from a high of 18 to 61st in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom rankings, but it is still comfortably ahead of Thailand and Singapore, ranked 130th and 150th respectively.

History looks set to repeat in Singapore, where a new Lee dynasty Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong is using the legal system to crush a noisy and annoying blogger with ambitions of becoming an Opposition Member of Parliament. Roy Ngerng has been making some strong claims about the Lion State's Mandatory Provident Fund and recently crossed the line, accusing the PM of misappropriating funds without a jot of evidence.

Ngerng should talk to the last Opposition MP who took on a Lee over freedom of speech. Joshua "J.B.'' Jeyaretnam hawks his self-published books on street corners after losing his seat and being declared bankrupt after taking on the Lee family business and losing.

I am writing about press freedom from the city I call home, Bangkok, where in the past 10 years I have censored myself frequently and copiously, and will continue CENSOREDCENSOREDCENSOREDCENSOREDCENSORED

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