Following is the English translation of the opening speech by the Chairperson of Hong Kong Journalists Association, Ms Sham Yee-lan, at Hong Kong Journalists Association 47th Annual Gala Dinner (8 May 2015):
Financial Secretary, our honorable guests,
We are extremely thankful for your support to HKJA, especially at this moment in Hong Kong. We need “real…heartfelt support” and also “real…financial support”. By showing up tonight, you have already given both of them to us. We hope that you can continue to optimize them tonight.
Since last autumn, storms have begun to assail us. Without a doubt, 2014 has been a turning point in the long history of Hong Kong. I have never lived in a more divided Hong Kong than in this year past. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This is an old saying that suits the Hong Kong media very well today.
Over the past year, I have listened to many stories about reporters, a lot more than at other times.
It was 6pm, September 28, 2014. Admiralty was filled with smoke. A tear gas still in flames fell on the pants of a photo-journalist. His thigh was burned. A doctor gave him 5 days sick leave. In defiance of the doctor´s advice, he continued to work, nursing the wound in the morning and bearing the pain to return to work in the occupied areas to work in the afternoon.
About the same time, another reporter said that he dared not to go into deep sleep at night despite a long day of hard work for fear that he might miss a tory when he woke up. Another who had just lost one of his parents said he had a sense of guilt when he submitted the application for compassionate leave, thinking that this would increase the workload of his colleagues.
Dear friends, in the past year, Hong Kong journalists have been facing great pressures and challenges while the press has been under assault. Both local and foreign investigations have shown that the press freedom of Hong Kong has been continuously decreased. Why has the situation deteriorated? The answer is: there are more and more storms, and they are getting stronger and stronger. At the moment, we are facing five different kinds of storms.
1. ¨Bloody storms¨, which literally injure reporters. Early last year former Ming Pao chief editor Mr Lau Chun-to was chopped six times in the legs. It is the bloodiest incident in the history of Hong Kong media. Meanwhile, at least 30 journalists were injured during the 79-day Umbrella Revolution. The perpetrators included angry members of the public who vented their discontent on frontline reporters over how certain incidents were handled by newspapers. Some reporters even got punched in the face and were barred from doing their jobs. It is worth noting that a total of four reporters were injured at one single event. The police force, among others, is one of the perpetrators. “Reporters do not stand above us all,” was what the police often said.
2. ¨Gate-keeping storms¨, an euphemism for self-censorship. This is cited as the main factor jeopardising press freedom in the HKJA press freedom survey. Dozens of staffers of a television company signed a joint statement in protest against an editor’s move to censor facts in news reports. One reporter quit after his editor change the caption of a photo showing people in the Occupy Movement making way for an ambulance to state the exact opposite of what was originally reported.
3. ¨Chilling storms¨, which sweep through the profession. The media is going through a difficult time. It is also undergoing structural change as sales decrease, advertising plunge, staff and salary cuts prevail. It is not uncommon to hear about pay freezes. ATV reporters, at a certain point had to “volunteer” to work as the company delayed paying wages. Their bosses said, “You put up with it first. You pocket it first.” Journalists have become very vulnerable.
4. ¨Briefing storms¨, in which government officials hide behind closed doors. Reporters love briefings. We love better briefings that are open. Government officials now love playing “keyboard warriors” and hiding behind closed doors. They have opted for one-way communication, leaving no channels for reporters to ask questions When the officials visited the districts, they did not inform the media. When they chose not to stay away from the citizens, the journalists were forced to do so (as there was no invitation for media coverage).
5. ¨Absurdity storms¨, that prevail over the society at large. This situation has turned out to be too absurd now. And there seems no end of it. Paradoxical, confusing right and wrong, talking black into white, topsy-turvy and bogus statements. Examples are aplenty. Screening candidates is counted as universal suffrage. Police have been described as “loving mothers”. Workers have to borrow their monthly salary from the boss who defaults on pay cheques. Under such circumstances, the responsibility of Hong Kong media has become more important in telling the public the truth.
The Hong Kong media needs to stand firm against the storms. But how do we go about it? First and foremost, journalists should be honest, with a strong unbending character. Our work should also carry such vigor and spirit. To be able to speak the truth, journalists should stay independent and critical, upholding the faiths of our profession. They should also stay alert against infiltration and the lure of benefits from people in power.
There is also a need to put media professionalism at center stage. In these critical, momentous times, the media must stand at the forefront in public opinion warfare. Everyone in the media, employers and employees alike, has the responsibility to safeguard media professionalism, and especially so in times of political turmoil. But after all, we are all humans. We may get carried away. We may be persuaded. But we need to stay firm and find a balance between being sober and enthusiastic.
There is a saying, ¨Reporting as a profession is a way of life that carries an infinite spell, the DNA of which gets into the bone marrow of those who do not conform”. Those journalists who do not conform would become the bridgehead in the era, building a society with “truth, virtue and beauty”.
Dear friends, the storms continue to ravage us. Hong Kong´s press freedom is still walking on a thorny path beset by tremendous challenges. We cannot stop. Instead, we have to stand tall, fearless against the storms, and stand up in defense of Hong Kong´s core values. Thank you very much.
Sometimes journalists inadvertently create jokes through carelessness. In a recent instance, perhaps inadvertently looking for benefits from finance and beauty, one report rendered “Dow Jones Average” as “Durex Average”. (In Cantonese they sound alike.) And, with all the ups and downs of the Hang Seng Index it was, perhaps, inevitable that some were reminded of the need for exercise…and the market landmark came across as “Hiking Index”. (Try that out in Cantonese.)
(Hong Kong news can be hilarious, because Cantonese is so susceptible to homonyms.) They make millionaires out of thieves who, after a sneaky snatch in some wretched apartment, take off in “helicopters”. And, it seems, dead people have no compunctions about going out to identify their own bodies when the words “family members” get inadvertently left out of reports.
By now you all know that Hong Kong journalists’ mastery of Putonghua is simply superb. So much so that the first instance of death in any tragedy immediately comes over as the ninth case of the tragedy. It may not be long before Hong Kong journalists, ordering grape juice on the Mainland, will end up with bubu gi – a decidedly funny Cantonese concoction.
Hong Kong reporters are not perfect. Frontline reporters often work round the clock, upholding press freedom despite constant threats to their personal safety, censorship by people in power and the risks of repercussions. Some toil on despite their employers defaulting on their pay cheques. These journalists have written a historic chapter of Hong Kong’s development. And they have done it with their best of efforts. Tonight we pay a special tribute to every one of them! Thank you all very much.
Chairperson of Hong Kong Journalists Association