Members Area

Journalist visas: Reporting on a country that won’t let you in

The Maldives has suffered a turbulent year, with a state of emergency, protests on the streets of the capital, and a hotly-contested presidential election. Riazat Butt, former Editor-in-Chief at the Maldives Independent, spent 11 months working ‘under the radar’ from hotel rooms outside the country after her work visa was refused.

Supporters of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed gather for a mass rally Supporters of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed gather for a mass rally. Photo: AFP / ADAM SIREII (Photo by ADAM SIREII / AFP)

Sometime in the afternoon of September 24, 2018, I learned that Abdulla Yameen had conceded defeat in the Maldives presidential election. I updated the Maldives Independent live blog. Then I cried. I was in a Sri Lanka hotel room and had been awake for almost two days, working through a cyber-attack lasting almost as long, to keep publishing news about an election that could lead the country towards a dictatorship or return it to democracy.

After 12 months, 11 of them not in the Maldives because my visa application was rejected, my time as editor-in-chief was over. The election result indicated a brighter future for press freedom, and gave me a chance to return to the country. But I had little desire to work there again.

I had dealt with blackmail, extortion, suspicions of money laundering, a state of emergency, funding crises, cyber-attacks, isolation and insecurity, in addition to my everyday responsibilities. I deserved a cry, I told myself.

But whatever I did attracted attention because I was female, alone and clearly not Maldivian.

I initially entered the Maldives on a 30-day tourist visa, staying with someone’s relatives to avoid putting my name on a hotel or apartment booking. My SIM was registered to someone else. I met nobody outside the workplace, bar two trusted contacts, while I was in the Maldives. My route to and from work changed every few days because newsrooms were under such scrutiny. I dressed modestly, even slipping on an abaya to cover my gym kit of t-shirt and leggings.

But whatever I did attracted attention because I was female, alone and clearly not Maldivian. The daily street harassment, noise, pollution, heat and crowds of the capital Malé, were so intense I was relieved about heading to Colombo for a short business trip.

The visa application was submitted in my absence and authorities had all the documents specified in immigration rules. The rejection came a few weeks later. It shocked me. At no stage of the recruitment process had I been warned that I might be unsuccessful, that I might have to work remotely. No reason was given for the refusal.

I had been so sure about getting a visa I had left most of my things in the Maldives. But my name had been flagged, according to a police source, and I risked being deported on arrival if I tried to get in again.

I considered marrying a Maldivian to get a visa. A reporter volunteered, but wanted a pay bump to match. I told him we didn’t have that kind of money.

I resisted calls to appeal the rejection because there was nothing to be gained by drawing attention to myself or the website. Also, as one senior NGO figure put it, it was the Maldives’ sovereign prerogative to grant or deny visas. I was not entitled to one simply because I was a journalist, I thought.

Besides, I didn’t want to become the story and there was work to be done: exposing wrongdoing, holding power to account and tackling under-reported issues.

But I didn’t know how to run a newsroom, let alone do it from thousands of miles away, and had no idea where I was supposed to go for the rest of my contract.

I flitted around Asia and even Europe, leading the team from different time zones, directing our coverage and setting the agenda.

I was pushy, single-minded and vocal as I bashed reporters into shape and sent them out on assignment. Messages pinged back and forth about who was doing what, why, how, where and when.

We ran stories on subjects considered taboo in the conservative and autocratic country – the perils of removing the hijab, recreational drug use, mental health, election rigging, unsolved murders, sexual harassment, sexual abuse – and exposed government lies about loans, statistics and development projects. Reporters revealed environmental destruction on islands, and the rifts in the opposition alliance and the trials of being a court reporter in the Maldives.

I often worked up to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and kept hearing how brilliantly I was doing and how fantastic the website looked. I was proud we were the only news website in the Maldives to come under attack during the state of emergency, although I hated not being able to publish.

Editor-in-Chief Riazat Butt during a rare meeting with her team in Colombo. Editor-in-Chief Riazat Butt during a rare meeting with her team in Colombo.

I wasn’t just working remotely, I was under the radar. There were no media appearances. There was no byline for me at the Maldives Independent and I never wrote for anyone else. I had no LinkedIn profile. Sure I tweeted about the Maldives, but I also tweeted about puppies and Brexit.

But among the successes there was frustration and exhaustion: attempting to explain what needed to be done and why — all day, every day, to reporters – or hearing they had no ideas or didn’t know what questions to ask when calling someone on a story. A lot of energy was spent getting the reporters to do the basics. The team was young and mostly inexperienced. I normally thrived in adversity but, at times, the scale of the challenge overwhelmed me.

I told people I worked in admin or that I sold stationery as I felt this would be more believable than the truth.

I also felt guilty that I wasn’t in the Maldives with the reporters. I couldn’t mentor them or help them develop. I felt I was letting them down by not being more patient, stronger, more creative and was devastated at my failure to do any of the things I had promised to do when I was hired: build the brand, get more money, hire more people, do video, graphics and interactives.

I met the team twice after my visa was rejected, once in December 2017 and then in August 2018. I didn’t see them after that, not even when I returned to the Maldives as a legitimate tourist for a holiday after I left my job and the new president had taken power.

The Maldives was a huge part of my life for 12 months. It was my life for 12 months. I knew everything about it, but didn’t share this information with other holidaymakers. They didn’t know about the extremism, the corruption, the backstabbing and cronyism, the pitiful transparency and my role in documenting all of it. I told people I worked in admin or that I sold stationery as I felt this would be more believable than the truth.

As the seaplane puttered over the Indian Ocean on my last departure I could name the islands coming into view, the lawmakers who represented them in parliament, the tycoons who owned the swanky resorts fanning across the water.

While this job is one of the most rewarding I’ve had in my career, it has also been one of the most bizarre. I had been reporting on a country I wasn’t allowed into and, when I was allowed in, I was no longer reporting on it.

Riazat Butt has worked at The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and AFP. She has lived in the Gulf, Asia and travelled widely on assignment. She was Editor-in-Chief at the Maldives Independent from September 2017 until October 2018.

POLITICS AND A MISSING JOURNALIST

Last year the Maldives ranked 120 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

Rights groups criticised Abdulla Yameen, who was president from 2013 until 2018, for leading a crackdown on free speech that saw the country slide down the RSF index during his time in office.

An anti-defamation law and pro-government media watchdogs engendered a hostile reporting climate. Journalists said they were forced to practise self-censorship to avoid crippling fines and lawsuits.

Reporters were also threatened, imprisoned, assaulted, even fleeing the country for their safety while Yameen was in power.

Maldives Independent reporter Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in 2014. The two men charged over his disappearance were acquitted last August and Rilwan remains missing.

Background checks, introduced in 2016 after an Al Jazeera exposé of massive state corruption, meant foreign journalists had to submit extensive documentation as part of their visa application, including a medical report, police certificate, two-year travel history, and bank statements.

The Ministry of Home Affairs barred foreigners from being editors of Maldivian news outlets. It also said only degree holders could be editors, but this regulation was later changed after it was pointed out that just several hundred people from the general population were graduates.

Yameen lost the September 2018 presidential election. The anti-defamation law was repealed in November.

Heading into harm’s way: How news organisations prepare staff for covering war zones

News organisations are getting better at preparing journalists, photographers and support staff for working in dangerous situations and gone are the days when advice stopped at “Keep clear of windows”. Eric Wishart reports.

Life in Kabul is punctuated by bombings, meaning journalists need to be trained for working in hostile environments. Life in Kabul is punctuated by bombings, meaning journalists need to be trained for working in hostile environments.

When ISIS murdered American journalist James Foley in 2014 his death not only triggered revulsion in newsrooms, it also provoked serious soul-searching.

The horrific video of his killing showed how the risks faced by journalists had changed and raised the key question: What exactly is the duty of care that a news organisation owes to its reporters, including freelance contributors?

James Foley was filing for my news agency Agence France-Presse and the online U.S. outlet GlobalPost when he was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012.

AFP stopped sending its foreign staff to cover rebel-held areas of Syria the following August, and in the wake of Foley’s death made an important decision – it would no longer accept content from foreign stringers working in areas judged too dangerous for its own staff.

It is a rule that is now enshrined in the new AFP ethics code that I drew up in 2016, and we make no exceptions – even if we are offered a world exclusive from a freelance reporter in the field.

American journalist James Foley. American journalist James Foley in Aleppo.

Not all freelances agreed with the decision, saying that it was not up to AFP to decide where and how they should work. But as a former AFP editor-in-chief who has sent dozens of reporters into dangerous situations and seen too many colleagues killed or injured, I believe it was the right decision.

If a major news organisation like AFP – with all its experience of conflict reporting and all its resources – decides that an area is too dangerous to cover, then you should not be there, and we will not encourage you to take that risk.

Freelance journalists, often working on shoestring budgets, are particularly vulnerable in war zones where they often do not have the same safety backup enjoyed by staff employed by the big news outlets.

Following the murders of James Foley and Steve Sotloff in Syria, a coalition of news outlets and journalism organisations signed up to a code of safety standards for freelancers under the umbrella of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong, which has long been a defender of freedom of the press, is one of the signatories.

AFP's Kabul Bureau Chief, Allison Jackson. AFP’s Kabul Bureau Chief, Allison Jackson.

One of the guiding principles is that when it comes to safety, all categories of staff – foreign, local or freelance – should receive the same protection. And above all, there is one basic principle we all must remember – no story is worth dying for.

So, what are the responsibilities of news organisations towards staff in hostile environments?

Dr Courtney C. Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that these responsibilities include “ensuring they are properly trained and resourced, have done a risk assessment and planned accordingly, and take precautions to ensure the physical and digital security of their journalists”.

In an email reply to questions from The Correspondent, she said that the risks to journalists have evolved.

“Given the centrality of the internet and mobile devices to contemporary journalism, journalists need to consider how to protect themselves and their sources on and offline,” she said. “Online harassment has become increasingly common, and many women and minority journalists in particular say that this is now a routine part of their jobs. There is also increasing awareness about trauma and needing to address this as part of a holistic approach to journalist safety.”

She added that the vast majority of journalists killed and imprisoned around the world are local journalists.

There are of course more local than international journalists, which means inevitably that the statistics will be higher. But autocratic governments and other bad actors also think they can act with impunity when it comes to local journalists, while attacking international staff can provoke a diplomatic backlash that they would rather avoid.

The recent jailing of the Burmese Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for seven years is a case in point, although they have received widespread international support. AFP has seen its local journalists in Afghanistan targeted in the past four years, with reporter Sardar Ahmad and his wife and two of his children killed by the Taliban in April 2014, chief photographer Shah Marai killed along with eight other journalists in a twin bomb attack in Kabul in April 2018, and office driver Mohammad Akhtar killed in a suicide bombing at the entrance to Kabul’s international airport, along with more than 20 other people, on his way to work.

AFP’s Asia-Pacific director Philippe Massonnet says that all journalists sent to conflict zones undergo training designed for the kinds of risks they will face.

“Local journalists and our regular stringers undergo this training, with photographers and video journalists given priority because they are the most exposed,” he said.

“It is also important to underline that hostile environment training should not just be for journalists – in some circumstances drivers and office managers should also be trained.”

Protective gear is deployed in all the agency’s bureaux depending on their profiles. All regular stringers are provided with protective gear and covered by insurance.

“The main challenge is not so much in providing the equipment but in ensuring that reporters wear their protective vests and helmets – some refuse to wear them or forget to take them with them when they go out on jobs.

“Bureau chiefs and news editors have the responsibility of applying the rules and protocols, but unfortunately some journalists are still too imprudent.”

Goodbye Gilbert: The FCC bids farewell to its very memorable general manager

General Manager Gilbert Cheng is retiring in August and for many the club will never be quite the same. Sue Brattle went along for a chat.

Gilbert Cheng. Photo: carstenschael.com Gilbert Cheng. Photo: carstenschael.com

The FCC will lose its memory this summer as it says goodbye to General Manager Gilbert “Tiger” Cheng, who is retiring after working at the club for 46 years.

For a man whose recall of names, faces, places and even membership numbers is legendary, getting information out of Gilbert isn’t easy. The blend of modesty and discretion that has made him such a great asset at the club all these years means he is uncomfortable when the spotlight is turned on him.

However, his trademark broad grin and explosive laugh soon shone through as he chatted about his childhood in Kowloon Tong and I innocently asked him whether he was a born-and-bred Hongkonger. “I am absolutely a Hong Kong boy,” he said. “School in Oxford Road, Kowloon Tong, a Boy Scout leader and influenced by my teacher, Tiger Wong.”

The young Gilbert aspired to be a policeman until someone pointed out that perhaps his personality wouldn’t suit the job. He tried his hand at several jobs before a neighbourhood friend, Mr Teddy Lai, introduced him to the FCC in 1972.

“Mr Lai had become the floor manager at the FCC in 1969. I started as a busboy as a summer job and never thought I would stay for decades. It was difficult to get a good job; everyone wanted to work in European hotels, but there weren’t so many of them then. My first bar manager and trainer was Papa Liao who made sure that I was taught housekeeping, stock control, purchasing, and so on. I also spent hours in a local supermarket to learn what things like tomato ketchup were – and to know that ketchup is different from sauce!

[sliderpro id=”4″]

“My first 10 years were a happy time. It was a happy atmosphere, more like a big family. Senior staff and club members taught me everything. I also spent two years studying at night school, one year full-time at Caritas College of Careers, and four years part-time at Poly U.”

Gilbert moved from busboy to waiter, bartender, restaurant manager and kept moving upwards “just working hard” as presidents came and went. In fact, climbing the career ladder to become General Manager in 2000 rates as one of his best memories.

A simple question – Who gave you the best career advice ever? – triggered a long list of colleagues, friends and FCC members. “They all brightened my career goals and broadened my mind.”

Going back to his phenomenal memory, Gilbert said: “That came from the years when I was serving people in person; I knew their names and membership numbers because I was interacting with them. In recent years, I have spent most of my time in the back rooms.” Also the club has grown, with membership doubling since 2000 and a workforce now of 96 full-time and 10 casual staff.

He recalled wild Friday nights at the FCC, when the default was to call 999 to break up a fight. “When I was a bartender there could be 200 men around the bar, four or five deep. Members used to drink more.” However, if you like gossip, Gilbert is not the man for you. “I never ask members personal questions, I don’t ask what they do or where they live,” he said.

As for his favourite moment looking back, Gilbert listed “the extraordinary excitement and emotions of the 1997 Handover Party led by [then club manager] Bob Sanders”. He added: “That week, journalists from practically all over the world descended upon the FCC.” And his worst moment? “The thought of having to leave my job at the FCC, which has been my life for the last 46 years.”

However, this summer sees the start of a new chapter in Gilbert’s life. He is contemplating going back to “school” – “just to keep the brain working”. What would he say to his successor? “Trust the Board to make the right decisions as they only want what is best for the club and, most of all, treat and respect the FCC as your home. Every day is a new day; enjoy and have fun while giving your best.”

Gilbert gets talking about work

“The FCC team was one of the best in town, hardworking, loyal, friendly and willing to learn. However, the labour market is changing and shifting. People don’t mind quitting their job now. They are not wrong; the world has changed and young people can’t pay their rent on the wages they earn. This is a social problem and it creates the current job-hopping and labour shortages. You can see ‘job vacancy’ stickers everywhere. However, at the FCC we still have members of staff who have a good spirit and good sense of teamwork; they are sincere and accept challenges. If you work at a club like the FCC you have to learn its culture. I was so lucky to have had the chance to work with them and learn from them.”

Tiger Tributes

When The Correspondent asked for tributes to Gilbert Cheng, they came pouring in. So here are a few quotes.

Gilbert Cheng: Photo: carstenschael.com

Gilbert has been an essential part of the Club for decades, pre- and post-handover. His bonhomie and his talent as a team leader will be equally missed by members and staff.

FCC President Florence de Changy


Gilbert will forever guide our way as he has all the years at the Club. We have ensured it. His voice, after all, is enshrined in an audio file link on the “Contact Us” page on our FCC website, where he tells Hong Kong taxi drivers where the correspondent expat sitting in their backseat is trying to tell them to go. It was the one brilliant thing we did updating the FCC website. One click of the blue box “Click here to hear location in Chinese” — and the dulcet tones of Gilbert Cheng will lead one and all to FCC. Forever.

Angie Lau, member since 2011


Over the more than 50 years I have been a member, we have recruited a large number of people to attend to various operations of the Club. Among them, only Gilbert can claim the distinction of reaching the pinnacle of his career—starting as a junior waiter and finishing as general manager. That is something which both he and the Club can be proud of. There is an adage in my native tongue, Malayalam: “A performer should retire after the best performance”. Gilbert has long been the best performer as our manager. Gilbert, like his mentor Mr Liao, is a Club legend, too good to let go easily.

Viswa Nathan


When things got tough, the Tiger side of Gilbert’s personality came through. One of the most memorable times was the controversial decision taken by the board while I was president: Redo the main bar.

Gilbert felt that the bar should run across the width of the room rather than its location along the left wall. A small but vocal portion of the membership threatened to “come with baseball bats” to defend their bar staying put.

That is when Tiger showed his stripes: Renovation works started a week earlier than announced, with the old bar gone one Sunday before anyone could protest. To ease the pain, Gilbert diplomatically distributed souvenir slices of wood from the old bar.

Former President Tom Crampton


I first met Gilbert on his third night at Sutherland House where the Club had set up after moving out of the Hilton Hotel. He had a mass of jet-black hair and a broad ready smile as he worked under the watchful eye of Papa Liao, the FCC’s bar manager from Chongqing days. Liao Chien-Ping, famed for his phenomenal memory of members’ names, likes and dislikes, was not to be disappointed. Gilbert proved a worthy protégé and had apparently done his research on members. Unasked, he poured me a glass of my favourite ginger beer. My respect for him has increased over the years and not too many are aware of the Good Samaritan in our midst: Gilbert is known to have helped out not a few who found themselves in difficult straits.

CP Ho (Member 00025)


Tiger quickly became Gilbert as he stepped into the shoes of the General Manager in 2000. He was the first local GM of the Club. The Club was experiencing a downturn and difficult decisions had to be made – increasing the subscription – as well as a successful membership drive was launched. With the improved finances, Gilbert then had the foresight to propose and complete a plan to purchase the Club’s Accounts Office in Universal Trade Centre – a sorely needed office space that turned out to be a tremendous investment! His tireless work in managing the Club, accepting the sometimes-questionable decisions of governors stoically, and improving the quality of the F&B outlets have now led to a demand for membership with a waiting list of over 3 years. We will miss Tiger’s smiles and laughter, as well as his growls.

Steve Ushiyama


As treasurer of the FCC for five years there were a number of occasions on which I found myself biting my nails about some decision I had made, realising that I had probably got it wrong, that there was no obvious way out of my dilemma and no way to avoid looking a fool or worse. But there was a remedy. I would go to Gilbert’s office, close the door, and say, “Gilbert, I’ve got a problem. Help!” And he always did. Invariably he came up with a way out. Thank you, Gilbert. I shall miss his presence in the Club, his cheery greetings to me at the Club table in the morning, his great knowledge of the Club’s affairs, his thorough organisation of its operations, his wide acquaintance with the members, his ways of diffusing tensions and his evident joy in his work.

Jake van der Kamp


The late Hugh Van Es and I were at the bar at the FCC on Gilbert’s first day of work, 46 years ago, and we watched him grow with the Club and advance up the FCC management ladder. Hugh was one of several Board members who recommended Gilbert as GM. The regulars were his family and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for them. Gilbert instilled through example a great sense of care and loyalty among the staff. A feeble member needed assistance to get home? You needed something fixed at home? You needed assistance in some other personal matter? Ask Gilbert, and he will find something or someone to help. When Hugh was in a coma, Gilbert visited him every night and the day he died, I saw him tearfully and reverently hanging up his portrait at the Main Bar.

Annie Van Es


I had the privilege to work with Mr Cheng for 15 years. He is no ordinary general manger, in a way that he gave not only guidelines to achieve tasks at work, but also tutorials on becoming a responsible person in the family, as well as a better person as a whole. In the 1990s, while handwriting chits were commonly used in the F&B industry, he saw the trend of data digitization hence introduced computerized Point of Sales (POS) system to the FCC. It made the FCC the first private club in HK adopting POS. I witnessed numerous occasions when he took the lead to care about the members. He offered comfort when it was required; he cheered up members when they were at downturns; he quietly encouraged members by preparing their favourite dishes or drinks in advance. Mr Cheng, no one will argue that your retirement marks a loss of a dear friend and a remarkable leader. I wish you happy retirement and all the best when you turn your book of life to another chapter.

Hoi Lo Chan, ex-Office Manager


One Saturday in 1997 I was enjoying a liquid lunch at a somewhat quiet main bar when an elderly couple came into the Club. I saw Gilbert checking out the couple, and you could tell he was thinking to himself he might know them. After a few minutes, he walked over and said, “Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it’s been a long time, how are you?” The couple looked somewhat stunned; as I overheard in their conversation, it had been something like 20 years since they had been at the club. Gilbert promptly ordered the couple’s favourite drinks that he had remembered for 20 years. The Club will never be the same without him.

Matt Driskill, 2004-2005 President


All of us know Gilbert is a tough and smart guy, who has high expectations of daily operations and service standards. Every morning when he arrived at the office, he had already checked up various markets from Kowloon, Central and Wanchai. One of his habits was to walk around the Club a dozen times daily, from the roof to the members’ facilities, kitchens and linen room. Even though some say he has a quick temper, Gilbert is the most considerate person I have ever known. He could remember the birthdays of most staff including every little detail of our family circumstances. He always went extra mile to help out, never asked for anything in return. I am still impressed that he attended the funerals of my grandparents within his busy schedule. Not one boss has ever cared about my family like that. This does mark the end of an era. I sincerely wish Gilbert a happy retirement and do always come back to the FCC. We will miss you lots!

Rosalia Ho, ex-Office Manager


When fresh out of Vietnam, I joined the FCC at Sutherland House in the 1970s, and Gilbert was already there. A quiet presence, just setting out on his path to make the Club a better place: an essential home for hundreds of reporters either covering war or Mao across the border. With the move to Ice House Street, it seemed to me, the biggest challenge of an FCC general manager was dealing with the many over-the-top personalities that either drank at the Club, served on the board, or both. I won’t embarrass any of my esteemed colleagues by naming names, but Gilbert was always effective in diffusing the most cantankerous among us. Although a relative old timer, I never called Gilbert “Tiger” – but that nickname certainly made clear the tenacity and dedication that Gilbert devoted to the Club over 46 years. I have not returned to the Club often in recent years as I am usually travelling. But when I have, Gilbert was always there with the kind of greeting that always made me feel very much at home. So General Manager Cheng – wherever your next adventure takes you, you must know that we will miss you and your dedicated service. We wish you well.

Jim Laurie, President 2001-2002


In the next issue, we meet Gilbert’s successor, Didier Saugy. If you have a question you’d like to ask him, send it to the Editor at [email protected]

 

A river runs through it: Why we must save the Ganges

Pollution and over-use of the Ganges is seeing one of the world’s great rivers heading in the direction of other East Asian rivers that have been made unusable at a time when water quality and shortages are becoming critical — unless something is done about it.

A Hindu devotee takes a holy dip in the polluted river Ganga (Ganges) in Allahabad. A Hindu devotee takes a holy dip in the polluted river Ganga (Ganges) in Allahabad.

The Indian government is aware of the Ganges pollution problem and wants to do something about it, but the impetus to do so is not there yet. In the meantime, “Indians are killing the Ganges and, in turn, the Ganges is killing Indians,” said journalist and author Victor Mallet during a Club lunch to talk about his new book, “River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future”.

“The Ganges, I argue in the book, is the world’s most important river,” said Mallet, who is the FT’s Asia News Editor. “We all know that rivers are crucial for life and civilisation and almost all the great cities of the world are built at river mouths, river confluences or river banks.

“Fresh water and the fate of the world’s rivers are really among the most important issues of the day.”

Mallet said although the book is a celebration of the Ganges, it is also a lament. “I think the Ganges is the most important as it has a place in culture and history — from the great works of literature to Bollywood movies, but also in Western literature.

Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi.

“So while the book is a celebration it is also a plea for help and a call to save the river and to stop the Ganges — or the Ganga as it is called in India — from suffering the same fate as the Thames in London did or the Chicago River in the US or the countless rivers in East Asia and the great rivers in China.”

The Ganges is the most important because of two main intertwined reasons: the spiritual and the practical. “The Ganges is holy to more than a billion Hindus in India and around the world,” he said. “Ganga is a goddess, she purifies the waters so that as a Hindu you want your ashes scattered on the river — particularly at Varanasi. The word India itself derives from the Sanskrit for a large river and to be an Indian is to be a river person.

“The other reason is that hundreds of millions of people live along it or on the floodplains, they are nourished by the waters and the rich silt the river brings down from the Himalaya foothills.”

Mallet said this was why India has been one of the most populous places in the world and one of the richest. That wealth — and pre-historic wealth — attracted the Moghul and British empires. And, if you look back at the statistical calculations, India once accounted for a quarter of the world’s GDP, a larger share even than China a thousand years ago.

“Even Hong Kong is connected to the Ganges, the river that transported the opium from northern India for the East India Company to China, which contributed to the establishment of Hong Kong.”

Flowing from the eastern Himalayas, through the Plain of North India and into Bangladesh, the river is now under serious threat from human sewage, toxic waste, antibiotics, fertiliser and pesticides, he said. A series of dams along its course means that, in places, it can sometimes run dry outside of monsoon season. And a lack of accountability within successive Indian governments has played a large part in the decline of the river, Mallet added.

However, Mallet is optimistic that the river can be saved. He draws comparisons with other rivers such as the Thames and the Rhine, once both heavily polluted but now home to thriving ecosystems. He was also hopeful that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, would deliver on his promise of cleaning up the river.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre L) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre R) take part in the evening ‘Aarti’ ritual on the banks of the River Ganges at Varanasi Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre L) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre R) take part in the evening ‘Aarti’ ritual on the banks of the River Ganges at Varanasi.

“He’s very much committed verbally to doing this,” Mallet said, “but there’s a debate as to whether he could have done more.”

Mallet noted a further problem: that the campaigners he had spoken to in India during his extensive research for the book had turned out to be the same people who had spoken to writers decades before – indicating that “a lot of young Indians are not really engaged in what should be an important mission”.

He concluded: “There are small signs of progress but the biggest push has not started yet.”

Mallet said he didn’t want to be pessimistic. “You can save rivers. When I was growing up in London my mother said don’t fall into the Thames you will go to hospital and have your stomach pumped because the water is poisonous.

“These days from the FT headquarters on the banks of the Thames — you can see a clean river with fish and cormorants and even wayward whales sometimes.

“The Chicago River used to be disgusting. When President Obama met with Modi in 2014 when discussing environmental issues, Obama mentioned you can now fish in the river and even eat them. And Modi said that was what he wanted for the Ganga.

“You can hope something can be done when you look at how some of the states stage those massive religious festivals. In 2013 I went to a festival in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, probably the world’s largest gathering of human beings — some 70 million gathered over a two-month period, although some 10 million bathed in the river on the first day. The point of this is that the state authorities actually build a temporary city for two million people on the sandbanks in the middle of the Ganges with roads, electricity, toilets, law and order, clean water and everything works… and it’s not very expensive. So it can be done.

“On the negative side Indians will say, ‘Oh, that’s the Indian wedding syndrome’, which means that when you want to really pull together for one event you can do it, ‘but for everyday life we just cannot do it’.” That attitude needs to be changed, he said.

“When I was doing my research a lot of Indians I met told me that ‘pollution is no problem for the Ganga because the Ganga is very pure, she’s a holy goddess and nothing we do makes any difference at all’ — as he threw a plastic bag of garbage into the river.

“And of course I say, environmentalists say, and smart holy men will say that this is nonsense because the very spiritual strength of a river — in this case the Ganges — derives not from some sort of remote, weird spiritual thing but from its very physical properties. The reason we worship rivers — as we did in Britain centuries ago — is that they are life givers, they provide life through water and fertility. And once you take that away when you poison the river, it is no longer a life giver and therefore the reason for the spiritual strength disappears.”

If most of the great cities of the world were built on rivers, why have the people who depend on those rivers so often poisoned their own water sources? How much pollution is enough to kill a river? And what is needed to bring one back to life?

“As I grew up and began to travel, I saw, sailed on, walked along, and read about many more waterways, from streams and canals to the great rivers of the world. Some – the Nile, the Zambezi, the Essequibo, the Mekong – were remarkably clean, because of the absence of large cities along most of their lengths. Others, like the Rhine and the Seine, were so-so. And still others, particularly the waterways of densely populated Asian cities undergoing their high-speed industrial revolutions, were filthy. The Malaysian writer Rehman Rashid’s description of the Sungai Segget as a ‘rank, black, stagnant, noisome ditch, filling the town centre of Johor Baru with the aroma of raw sewage and rotting carcasses’ reminded me of Charles Dickens’s description in ‘Hard Times’ of a fictional town in the north of England that was probably Preston: ‘Down upon the river that was black and thick with dye, some Coketown boys who were at large – a rare sight there – rowed a crazy boat, which made a spumous track upon the water as it jogged along, while every dip of an oar stirred up vile smells’.

Indian Hindu devotees perform rituals after taking a holy bath in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the river Ganges in Sagar Island, around 150 km south of Kolkata Indian Hindu devotees perform rituals after taking a holy bath in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the river Ganges in Sagar Island, around 150 km south of Kolkata.

“Spumous? If you’re looking for spumous, I can recommend the Yamuna River below the Okhla barrage in Delhi, after the city and the farmers around it have taken most of the clean water for irrigation and drinking and replaced it with a mixture of industrial waste and the untreated sewage of one of the world’s largest cities.

“At dawn, the great mounds of white foam thrown up by the barrage are tinged with pink as they float gently across the oily, black surface of a holy river once celebrated in ancient Indian literature as a paradise of turtles, birds, fish, deer and the gopis or female cowherds who tended to the playful god Krishna. So disgusting is this water that the latest official measurements I could find from Okhla show it to contain half a million times the number of faecal bacteria allowed under the Indian standard for bathing.

“The abuse of the Yamuna, and the Ganges or Ganga of which it is a major tributary, is particularly puzzling because both rivers are worshipped as goddesses by hundreds of millions of Hindus, and because they are so important as sources of water and fertile silt to the vast populations of north India, from the lower slopes of the western Himalayas all the way to Calcutta and Dhaka and the Bay of Bengal in the east.”

The Yamuna just below Delhi is already dead, but the Ganges itself, while gravely threatened by pollution and over-extraction of water, is very much alive… you can see fresh-water dolphins far up the river in Allahabad, Varanasi, and Patna.

“While Modi has made saving the Ganges one of his policy priorities, he does seem to have the political will to save the Yamuna and the Ganges, and he would certainly win the backing of the majority of Indians for the improved sanitation and pollution control that will be necessary. There is money there too, including US$1 billion from the World Bank in what would be among its largest ever projects.

“Three years into Modi’s five-year mandate, however, surprisingly little has been achieved to restore India’s rivers. It looks as if I’ll have a long wait before I can jump into the Yamuna at Okhla and go for a swim without needing my stomach pumped afterwards.”

Ganges clean-up lost in politics

Ed Gargan, also a river writer, on Victor Mallet’s catalogue of environmental horror

Unfortunately for Victor Mallet, the distinguished correspondent and now Asia news editor for the Financial Times, Hinduism’s greatest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, during which as many as 100 million people gather to wade into India’s holiest river, occurred on his watch. The river, known by many names but most commonly as the Ganges, is no pristine water course. Instead, it is a creeping cesspool of human waste, chemical and industrial effluents, plastic and styrofoam rubbish, human remains both ash and not, animal carcasses, household garbage, and poisonous run-off from fertilised fields. But, it is sacred in Hindu tradition and immersion in its waters during the Kumbh Mela spiritually redeeming. On the river bank, notebook and pen in hand, Mallet, the most meticulous of reporters, knew there was no choice. In he jumped.

That he survived his plunge into these stygian waters is in itself miraculous. But he emerged to write a wide-ranging and thoughtful account of India’s most important river. Its importance, however, stems not from its riverine qualities, but from its environmental degradation on the one hand and its hot button religious symbolism on the other; indeed, what other river in the world lures hundreds of thousands of naked sadhus to its banks as an exercise fraught with religious as well as political fervour.

For Hindus the sacred nature of the Ganges is a bedrock belief. “We do believe that anyone who takes a dip in this water, he becomes pure also, because it is always pure, though it looks like it is impure,” an elderly pilgrim told Mallet. It is the centrality of that belief and the rituals that surround it that have fuelled the rise, and now the dominance, of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. With a deftness that some might describe as shameless, the party’s leader, Narendra Modi, the virulently anti-Muslim chief minister of Gujarat, steamrolled the Congress Party by accusing it of doing nothing to clean up the sacred Ganges. The BJP, Modi thundered, was the only party capable of restoring the river to its historic purity.

Wielding religious symbols as political cudgels is hardly confined to India, but in a nation sharply divided on sectarian grounds, and where religious passion can, and often has, ignited waves of bloody violence, these symbols become culturally defining. For the BJP, the rise to power began 25 years ago with the destruction of a disused 16th-century mosque by mobs of Hindu zealots whipped to a frenzy by BJP politicians screaming that Hinduism was under attack.

While the BJP hesitated then in its pursuit of power, in 2014 Modi swept to power and the Ganges and everything it symbolised was at the centre of his victory. “Ma Ganga has decided some responsibilities for me,” Modi declared. Among them, cleaning up the river. Two years and a few cosmetic projects later, the Ganges remained unchanged. Now ensconced as prime minister, Modi’s attention had shifted.

As thoroughly as Mallet describes the interweaving of religious belief and political practice, he is alarmed by the critical state of the river itself. But so degraded is the Ganges by pollution, damming, and draining by upstream agriculture that it is difficult to catalogue the full extent of this cataclysm. For Mallet it is a catalogue of horror, and it starts in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a major tributary, the Ramganga. At first there are just discarded cigarette packs and a scattering of plastic bags. As he moves on, the river becomes edged with paper mills, sugar plants, brass foundries and plastics factories, all disgorging waste into the waters. “Downstream,” he writes, “the sandy banks and the exposed riverbed present an apocalyptic scene of filth and garbage, of dead dogs, plastic bags, nullahs (drains) spewing pink dye, and pigs rootling through the muck.” Toxic chemicals, including heavy metals mercury and arsenic, pour out of thousands of home business “e-waste” recycling work sites. Even the oxygen level of the water has decreased so much that fish cannot survive in sections of the river.

The impact of this destruction of the river on people’s health is unsurprising. Skin disease is widespread and cancer rates seem correlated to the increase in heavy metals in the water. But even more alarming, Mallet points out, are “bacterial genes exposing water-users to the risk of infections that resist modern antibiotics…superbugs.” Every day, 1,200 to 1,500 children die of cholera, hepatitis or other waterborne diseases.

Mallet’s enormously wide-ranging curiosity about the river leads him to an extended essay on India’s relentlessly growing population – soon to surpass China’s – and its impact on the country’s diminishing water resources, some of which, of course, include the Ganges. He rummages through old Bollywood films that mention the Ganges. As in all Bollywood productions, song and dance try to pump energy into lacklustre melodramas, including such box office flops as Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi, which ends with the lead character crooning, “Ganga will carry away Saraswathi in his arms.”

An accomplished sailor, Mallet writes as well of boats on the Ganges but is reduced to historical accounts of river navigation. “You could spend days on the Ganges,” he writes, “without seeing a single vessel of any sort under sail.” Where in the 1970s some 5,000 large commercial vessels travelled inland waterways, at best 150 do today.

In the end, of course, what matters is the fate of the Ganges itself. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated by successive governments to clean up the Ganges, most of it squandered, misallocated, or simply stolen. Even so, Mallet contends, what happens to the Ganges after all Modi’s promises to clean up the river will be the most fundamental measure of the government’s performance. If it fails, not only will the BJP fail but India itself will stumble. Just before leaving his assignment in India Mallet visited a revered swami who daily leads prayers on the Ganges shoreline. “If Ganga dies, India dies,” he told Mallet. “If Ganga thrives, India thrives. The lives of 500 million people is no small thing.”

Ed Gargan, former New York Times Hong Kong bureau chief and Beijing correspondent, is another FCC member who has written about a river. His river is the Mekong, and the book: “The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong”.

Ed spent a year travelling along the Mekong from Tibet to the delta in Vietnam, exploring the many cultures along it as well as fulfilling a need to “weave together my passion for Asia with a longing to travel at my own speed, to wander as I wished, to find a river that would pull me through Asia… That river is the Mekong.’’

 

Chris Patten on Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, and his latest memoir

Chris Patten returned to Hong Kong and the FCC to promote his new book and to share his views on democracy in Hong Kong.

Chris Patten addresses the packed September 2017 club lunch. Chris Patten addresses the packed September 2017 club lunch.

Chris Patten, who first came to the FCC as a young MP in 1979, then in the early 90s as the last governor, and for three other book launches, was in town to promote his latest book which coincided with the aftermath of the jailing of Joshua Wong and the latest chapter of Hong Kong’s pro-independence tussle.

Patten’s book, “First Confession: A Sort of Memoir”, explores identity politics and the nature of community through the story of his own complicated identity through various political roles in the UK, Ireland, Europe and of course Hong Kong, which is going through the latest version of its own identity crisis.

Students clash in front of a wall of posters for and against independence for Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP Students clash in front of a wall of posters for and against independence for Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Patten, who is Chancellor of Oxford and who when he was governor was a chancellor of all Hong Kong universities, arrived in Hong Kong just days after a university row saw pro-independence students clash with their peers from the Mainland over posters advocating independence for Hong Kong. These were put up at the Chinese University campus, heightening simmering tensions in the city.

While Patten reiterated his view that the pro-independence movement dilutes the city’s drive for more democracy, he also said that both sides need to keep talking.

“What I hope is that people will start talking to one another again. I hope there’ll be a dialogue. You can’t simply expect people to accept your values or standards or political judgements without talking to them about it. You can’t trample ideas into the dust. You have to talk to people and listen to people,” he said.

People should be prepared to talk to one another, not fight one another, or not talk about killing one another, or not putting out posters welcoming people’s suicides.

“People should be prepared to talk to one another, not fight one another, or not talk about killing one another, or not put out posters welcoming people’s suicides,” he told the packed Club lunch on September 19, where guests included former Hong Kong Finance Secretary John Tsang and ex-Chief Secretary Anson Chan.

Patten said he hoped Hong Kong – “a city which I love as much as anywhere in the world” – would continue to thrive.

When asked what he would do if he were the UK’s leader, Patten said: “First of all I’d be pleased that the last six-monthly report by the Foreign Office was a bit more honest and outspoken than some reports had been in the past. Secondly, I would begin from the assumption that we shouldn’t believe that you can only do business with China over Hong Kong or over anything else from a position of supine deference.

“The fact that the Chinese do it is because other countries allow them to. I don’t think it should be something we necessarily criticise them for if they can get away with it. If they can get away with weaponising trade, for example, they’ll go on doing it. But I don’t think they respect you for it and I don’t think it’s the only way you can do business.

“I would come to Hong Kong, I would make a speech saying that I thought Hong Kong was fantastic, that I thought it was a jewel in the crown for China potentially as we go forward; that it represented in the 21st century an issue which is going to be dominant – that is how you balance economic and political freedom and what sort of role China has in the world today, what sort of role it’s prepared to take in global governance, how it’s prepared to make more of the footprint that it should have because of its economic strength and power.

“And I would hope to go on to China and say similar things.”

Photo: HKFP Photo: HKFP

He added that he would also raise the issue of Liu Xiaobo’s wife. Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since her husband, a prominent dissident since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, won the Nobel prize in 2010.  She was last seen in a video recorded in August and posted on social media in which she asks for time to grieve. Many of her supporters and friends, however, have expressed concern for her welfare.

Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen also came in for criticism from Patten as he was asked for his thoughts on the upcoming trials of nine pro-democracy activists involved in Occupy Central. Patten said he was “loathe to comment on ongoing legal processes in Hong Kong”, and instead chose to speak specifically about Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law – jailed in August for their part in the 2014 protests.

He criticised the Justice Secretary’s decision to appeal their original non-custodial sentences, saying it was politically motivated. “He’s [a] grown-up. He must know, as I said earlier, that actions have consequences, and not to understand what signal that would send to the rest of the world, strikes me as being, to be frank, a little naive,” he said.

Referring to a Reuters report that Yuen had insisted on reviewing the sentences despite opposition from fellow prosecutors, Patten added: “Perhaps it would have been wise to take the advice which we were told he was receiving from someone in his department.”

The politics of identity

Chris Patten’s latest book, First Confession: A Sort of Memoir, looks at the concept of identity politics and the nature of community. Rather than write a another conceptual book on the subject, he chose to explore the issues through the story of his own rather complicated identity. In his lunch address he gave a potted version of his “obsession” with identity.

“I am from a family of Irish potato famine immigrants, lower middle class, scholarship boy and a Catholic. I was not only the first of my family to go to university, but also the first Catholic to become Chancellor of Oxford since 1560 — we’ve waited a long time…

“I am also an endangered species, a moderate Conservative who found myself in jobs where identity politics was the central issue.

“I spent two years as a government minister in Northern Ireland and went back later to reorganise the police service as part of the Belfast Agreement (1998) which bought peace to the province. I was dealing with a problem that was purported to be about religion, but was in fact about power.”

Later as a European Commissioner Patten spent time dealing with the alleged politics of ethnicity between Croats, Serbs and Muslims.

“When I found myself in Hong Kong I was dealing with another aspect of identity politics, the so-called clash of civilisations. A much-advocated concept by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. “When I was coming to Hong Kong I was advised to stop off in Singapore to talk to the then Prime Minister Lee, who said to me that first ‘you have to behave like a newly elected prime minister, you have got to have a programme, be clear what it is and stick to it. And secondly, you have to deal with the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, which you can’t change but you want to fill in all the gaps and make the whole thing as democratic as possible”.

“So I came here and thought I did both things.”

I also had difficulty with the idea of cultural clash or civilisation clash and thought that people in Hong Kong wanted to be in control of their own lives as much as any other people around the world.

Anyway Lee — “who once sent a letter to me asking if we could be on ‘Harry’ and ‘Chris’ terms” — came to Hong Kong and said how much he disagreed with Patten about everything. Lee, of course, chose the most embarrassing moment to say this when he gave a lecture at HKU presided over by Patten in his role as the university’s Chancellor. In response to a question of whether Hong Kong deserved to be a democracy, he replied that it didn’t matter whether Hong Kong deserved a democracy because it wasn’t going to get it as Hong Kong is part of Asia and people in Asia did not care about human rights and civil liberties because they were Confucian.

“I had some difficulty with that argument as I always thought that human rights were universal,” Patten said. “I also had trouble with the idea that there was a political model which would comprehend everyone from Pyongyang to New Delhi. And I also had a problem with the notion that everyone in Chinese societies were Confucian.

“I also had difficulty with the idea of cultural clash or civilisation clash and thought that people in Hong Kong wanted to be in control of their own lives as much as any other people around the world.”

So now after all those experiences, Patten  said he is now witnessing the latest manifestations of identity politics with some concern: The first is Jihadist terrorism, “which we live with week by week in European cities, which I do not think has anything to do with the Koran or Islam”; secondly the growing ethno-nationalism, where individual countries seem to think that communities can only be defined by their nationality — a nationalism that defines itself as against others, which so often sentimentalises its own history, glamourises its institutions and xenophobia is given full rein.

“If you look at what’s been happening in Europe, or America’s drive to be great again — if it wasn’t already, or you look at some parts of Asia and closer to home here, all this represents something I thought we all learned about after the Second World War: namely individual countries cannot deal with their own problems without dealing with other countries and sharing or pooling sovereignty — which I think is extremely important lesson we must relearn.”

Article 23: Is Hong Kong’s anti-subversion legislation upon us under Carrie Lam?

In 2003, Article 23 of the Basic Law was withdrawn after it became clear the Legislative Council would not pass it. Fourteen years on, a new government in Hong Kong, new directives from China and a change in mood generally mean the law could be back on the table. Stephen Vines looks at the implications.

One thing is really clear – the government in Beijing is fed up with waiting for Hong Kong to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law and introduce sweeping anti-subversion legislation.

This is why, despite routine denials, the central government will be putting the heaviest of pressure on new Chief Executive Carrie Lam to ensure that her administration will make this a priority. It remains unclear how enthusiastic she is to go forward with this plan, but Ms Lam has no track record of being bold enough to say no to Beijing.

Photo: AFP/Peter Parks Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

While Ms Lam’s personal views on this matter remains unknown we do know that Tung Chee Hwa, the HKSAR’s first Chief Executive, was an enthusiast for this legislation and needed little encouragement from Beijing to bring in an anti-subversion bill during his fifth year of office.

He failed. But what has changed since 2002 when he tried to get this legislation on the statute books following massive opposition? The answer is that the atmosphere of political confrontation has deepened; tolerance of the opposition has diminished and its legitimacy has been increasingly questioned as both civil society organisations and the media have found themselves in the firing line.

China’s President Xi Jinping, centre, with outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung, left, and incoming CE Carrie Lam, right, at a variety show in Hong Kong on June 28 worry over what form the pending anti-subversion bill will take. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace China’s President Xi Jinping, centre, with outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung, left, and incoming CE Carrie Lam, right, at a variety show in Hong Kong on June 28 worry over what form the pending anti-subversion bill will take. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

As journalists we are only too well aware of this, not least because of the vicious attack on one of our colleagues, Kevin Lau in 2014. More generally we have seen our industry come increasingly under the control of pro-Beijing bosses, while newsrooms have felt the heavy hand of both censorship in its brutal form and self-censorship. No wonder Hong Kong is sliding down the global press freedom list.

What all this means is that the environment for introducing a very tough version of anti-subversion legislation is more profound today than it was more than fifteen years ago.

Back then the FCC joined other opponents of the proposed anti-subversion bill. We did so because the fear then, as now, was that the law would bring the mainland’s broad notion of national security and state secrets to Hong Kong. This in turn paves the way for the prosecution of reporters undertaking normal journalistic activities. The FCC statement said that the proposed law would damage “Hong Kong’s reputation for free-flowing information and possibly spark an exodus of journalists and news organisations.” As it turned out cost pressures were primarily responsible for the exodus but there is still scope for further departures.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip speaks to the media about the controversial Article 23 at the Central Government offices in Hong Kong 28 January 2003. The press conference was held ahead of the government's release of an amended draft anti-subversion law after a three-month public consultation ended last month. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip speaks to the media about the controversial Article 23 in 2003. AFP PHOTO/Peter Parks

Memories are short and people have forgotten the extent to which the proposed law was draconian. It was a direct attack on freedom of speech in as much as writing or speaking about matters that could be deemed to be subversive was put on par with physical action to undermine the local or central governments. The previous bill made it clear that (vaguely defined) interests of national security would override considerations of civil liberties and freedom of speech.

As the FCC pointed out, the law could increase “government’s power to restrict the flow of information without a corresponding statutory right to access information,” while at the same time “placing the onus on reporters to determine whether or not information they obtain has been legally disseminated.”

Moreover Hong Kong permanent residents were liable to prosecution for anything written or said outside the jurisdiction of the SAR.

Shortly before the Hong Kong government introduced its anti-subversion legislation in 2002 a new law was enacted in the Mainland dealing with the “theft of state secrets” and publishing of “unauthorised” news. The law was aimed at preventing publication of more or less any material that the state had not authorised as fit for publication. It added to the chill in the atmosphere of the time, as it was clear that this edict could affect both Hong Kong and overseas reporters.

And, just in case anyone missed the implications for the SAR Regina Ip, the Secretary for Security who was mainly responsible for the new legislation and pursued it with vigour right up to the time when she was forced to resign, made it clear that the views of Chinese officials would be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute the media.

With the hardline came her assurances, as expressed in an Asian Wall Street Journal opinion piece, saying: that the new law would “not have any adverse impact on freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, as they are currently enjoyed.” Her assurances might have been that bit more reassuring had they not come hard on the heels of her now infamous remark that democracy was overrated, using as evidence the mendacious claim that Hitler came to power in Germany as a result of elections.

However, the government propaganda machine, backed by the usual suspects, trundled on peddling the line that opponents of the law were being unnecessarily alarmist and had failed to understand that the legislation did little more than provide a highly necessary backstop in case things got out of hand.

The hollow nature of these claims was laid bare by the behaviour of Chinese officials when, and this was unusual for them, they encountered reporters who did not belong to state run outlets. Famously at a 2000 press conference President Jiang Zemin blew up at a Hong Kong reporter asking a mildly challenging question: “I’m addressing you as an elder,” he said, “I’m not a reporter. But I have seen too much and it’s necessary to tell you: In reporting, if there are errors you must be responsible.”

The same year Wang Fengchao, a mainland official in Hong Kong, said that Hong Kong media should not be allowed to report on Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, even though Beijing has no constitutional right to interfere in matters of this kind which are supposed to be part of the SAR’s autonomous status.

Protesters carry a huge anti-Article 23 banner as they march through the streets of Hong Kong, 01 July 2003, to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE / AFP PHOTO / MIKE CLARKE Protesters carry a huge anti-Article 23 banner as they march through the streets of Hong Kong, 01 July 2003, to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Now that Beijing is increasingly dictating how Hong Kong should proceed in all significant areas of local policy formulation, including, of course, anti-subversion laws, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Communist Party mindset that moulds thinking on issues that are seen as challenging the party’s supremacy.

In the world of smoke and mirrors that governs freedom of expression on the Mainland, Article 35 of the 1982 Constitution guarantees citizens “freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and the right to establish organisations, movement and protests”.

That sounds reassuring but it is qualified by Article 38 stating that the reputation of PRC citizens cannot be compromised by humiliating or libellous statements; Article 51 states that citizens cannot, in the exercise of their freedoms, harm the collective interests of the nation, society, or the freedoms enjoyed by other citizens; Article 53 calls for all citizens to “protect state secrets, cherish public assets…respect public order and social morals”. Then there is the killer Article 54 stating that citizens have the duty to protect the “security, honour and interests of the motherland” and that to do otherwise is prohibited.

In other words the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression is severely undermined by sweeping qualifications that render it meaningless. In practice we see that things have, if anything, become much worse as the Xi regime has been using legal means to jail journalists and place ever tighter controls on social media, now viewed by the Communist Party as the main challenge to its vice-like grip on the media as a whole.

The idea of freedom of expression is entirely alien to dictatorships who, in Mao’s famous words, expect the media ‘to serve the people’. The concept of the media as a monitor for government actions, a platform for the exchange of opinions and a reliable source of accurate information is simply nowhere in the minds of the grey men in Beijing who control everything.

More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Therefore in many ways it is a miracle that Hong Kong continues to enjoy the level of free expression that still prevails. The Communist Party worries about this on two levels, first that this freedom contains the seeds of contagion that can spread to the Mainland and second that the free exchange of information in Hong Kong undermines a clear intention to make the SAR increasingly subservient to Beijing.

It will be noted that Hong Kong’s Basic Law also contains an unequivocal pledge to ‘freedom of speech, of the press and of publication’, as stated in Article 27, mirroring the PRC constitution’s similar pledge. However the Basic Law does not contain the get-out clauses that exist in the Chinese constitution.

This should be reassuring were we not in an era where the National People’s Congress Standing Committee seems so keen to ‘reinterpret’ the Basic Law and where China’s commitment to the pledges made prior to the creation of the HKSAR have been placed in question. This year Chinese officials have gone so far as to state that the Sino-British treaty for the handover of Hong Kong is nothing more than a historical document of no contemporary relevance. In other words even an agreement lodged at the United Nations can be airily tossed to one side when it no longer serves the Communist Party’s needs.

No wonder people are so worried about what the pending Article 23 legislation will contain.

Hong Kong Handover 20 years on: Mixed mood as city marked anniversary

The Club marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China with an evocative display of images curated by the Wall Committee, rounded off with a video display of the SCMP’s signature images of the past 20 years and a gathering of members and visiting media on the night that reflected a bittersweet occasion for some, no doubt matched by others as a moment of patriotic pride.

This mixed mood within 2 Lower Albert Road mirrored that of Hong Kong’s millions of residents as the anniversary encouraged the contemplation of the past two decades and the prospects for the now less than 30 years to come. If the past is said to be another country, then the future, at least in Hong Kong’s context, looks increasingly like another system.

For the Club’s members, but notably those remaining correspondents and journalists who had covered the events of 1997, the anniversary brought forth – as anniversaries are meant to do – old ‘war stories’ and shared camaraderie. For those new to Hong Kong and the Club it was a good excuse to celebrate and share those memories, as well as look towards Hong Kong’s future.

It was good to see a number of old friends returning for the occasion, others no longer with us remembered and the company of new friends enjoyed.

Patten goes scolds activists for diluting support for democracy

Almost 20 years after that rain and emotion-drenched night when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, the last colonial governor Chris Patten revisited his old haunts and proved as incisive, insightful – and newsworthy – as ever, as a sell-out FCC audience discovered. Jonathan Sharp reports.

Hong Kong's last British colonial governor Chris Patten gestures as he speaks at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong on November 25, 2016. Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor Chris Patten gestures as he speaks at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong on November 25, 2016.
/ AFP PHOTO / Anthony WALLACE

According to the billing for his appearance at the FCC, Patten was going to give his views on what the world was like, and could expect, following this year’s two seismic electoral shocks, the UK’s pro-Brexit referendum vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. But if any of those who packed into the Main Dining Room thought that Patten was going to stick to that script and not hold forth on the fraught political environment in his old bailiwick of Hong Kong, then they were in for another shock.

In fact it was his trenchant views on what he termed the oath-taking “antics” in the Legislative Council by activists favouring Hong Kong’s split from China that made headlines, not just locally but also back in the UK.

Patten, who during his 1992-97 governorship sought to quicken the pace of political reform and was excoriated by Beijing as a “sinner for 1,000 generations”, emphasised that he remained as devoted as ever to the cause of full democracy for Hong Kong. He also admired the Umbrella Movement that blocked some Hong Kong streets for 79 days in 2014.

“Two years ago many brave young people in Hong Kong established moral high ground about democracy and governance. It would be a tragedy if that high ground was lost because of a few antics about so-called independence for Hong Kong.”

The antics he spoke of were the actions of young elected lawmakers Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, who were banned from taking their seats in Legco after giving their own colourful versions of the oaths at the swearing-in ceremony. They declared allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation”, unfurled banners that said “Hong Kong is not China” and Yau gave allegiance to “the Hong Kong special administrative region of the People’s Refucking of Cheena”, the last word, among others, deemed derogatory.  (The pair’s use of salty language is not confined to oath-taking ceremonies, as FCC stalwart Dr Feng Chi-shun reminded us in an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post. He also noted how, at a separate forum, an audience member got his own back at Leung Chung-hang by calling him “Lun Chung-hun” – Cantonese for “itching of private parts”.)

Chris Patten arrives at the FCC with his wife, Lavender (left), and FCC President Tara Joseph (right). Chris Patten arrives at the FCC with his wife, Lavender (left), and FCC President Tara Joseph (right).

Patten said such actions by pro-independence localists – some of whom were in diapers or not even born when he checked out of Hong Kong in 1997 aboard the Royal yacht Britannia — were diluting, not strengthening, the support for democracy. They were making a mockery of a serious political argument. Independence for Hong Kong is simply not going to happen, so why waste energy, time and popular support by saying that it could come about? It was “dishonest, dishonourable and reckless” to conflate the drive for greater democracy with the argument for independence. Adopting what he called his “headmasterly” manner, Patten, who has been a frequent oath-taker in his marathon career in political and public service and is now ennobled as Lord Patten of Barnes, said: “Taking an oath is a serious business… it isn’t something of a lark.” Patten also told Agence France-Presse: “There are lots of people who agreed with them on democracy who won’t touch this stuff about self-determination with a barge pole.”

Understandably, the localists did not take Patten’s stern admonishing lying down. Leung told the Guardian that he and his Youngspiration party “respectfully disagreed with Lord Patten’s comments about the so-called ‘moral position’” of the 2014 protests, adding that the past two years had proved that a strong moral position yielded nothing “when you are negotiating with the immoral and authoritarian Chinese communist party”.

He was further quoted as saying: “If there is no legitimate election and political discussion, how can we even start our discussion on governance and democracy as advised by the very learned Lord Patten?”

Who loses under Brexit and Trump?

Lord Patten's talk at the FCC made headlines both in Hong Kong and the UK. Lord Patten’s talk at the FCC made headlines both in Hong Kong and the UK.

Returning to the advertised theme of his FCC talk, Patten was asked by FCC President Tara Joseph what his verdict was on the year 2016, and his reply was: “Terrible”. Expanding on this terse judgement, Patten expressed his fears: “I think that, unfortunately, the people who are most likely to suffer from Trumpian protectionism, if it happens, are the people who voted for Mr Trump. Just as in Britain, the people who are most likely to suffer from the consequences of Brexit are people in some of the disadvantaged parts of the country who voted for it. I think that’s a real tragedy.”

The seemingly tireless 72-year-old Patten enlarged on this and many other themes at a succession of events during his Hong Kong visit. The day after his FCC appearance, he attended a Project Citizens Foundation forum entitled “Governance in Hong Kong: Are the Pillars Crumbling?” He said that during his career he had worked with several different bureaucracies – in the UK and Europe as well as Hong Kong.

“Without any question the most competent civil service that I worked with was that in Hong Kong in the 1990s. I hope it has not lost any of its vitality and morale since then.” The unequivocal response came from Anson Chan, the former Chief Secretary before and after Hong Kong’s handover to China, who told the forum in no uncertain terms that Hong Kong’s civil service had indeed gone downhill in many sad ways since she had been in charge.

Patten also said that his five years as Hong Kong governor were “the happiest years of my life”. And many Hong Kong people accord him a warm welcome whenever he comes back and gives us the benefit of his wisdom laced with dry wit. Which makes one wonder: how many other former governors of colonies, British or otherwise, are held in the same esteem in the territory they used to run as is Hong Kong’s last “colonial oppressor” – Patten’s joking term for himself?

AFP beachhead in North Korea

Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

Agence France-Presse’s new bureau in Pyongyang, which opened in September, is already churning out the stories.

The bureau, which was officially opened by Emmanuel Hoog, the group’s chief executive and chairman, so far has been focusing on producing video and photographic content.

It was able to open following an agreement made earlier in the year between AFP and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), following “about 10 rounds of negotiations that began in 2012”, said Philippe Massonnet, AFP’s Asia-Pacific regional director.

“Not that there was any resistance by the authorities, but it was only a matter of time as we were not only dealing with KCNA, but other government departments as well.”

The Pyongyang bureau will be staffed by a locally hired videographer and a photographer, who will work in conjunction with visiting foreign correspondents, which mirrors what other international news bureaux, including the Associated Press, Xinhua, Ria Novosti and Japan’s Kyodo News. AP opened the first foreign bureau in 2012.

As a big international newsagency “we have to be wherever we can”, Massonnet said. “For us, it is normal and natural to open an office in North Korea, as we open offices everywhere in the world – in some we cannot employ locals, in others it’s foreigners.”

With North Korea’s total media censorship and control it must be a struggle for the locally hired staff to function properly for foreign media – even with training.  “We brought the North Korean staff to Hong Kong in August for training sessions about how AFP works as well as going on shoots to take care of the practical aspects,” Massonnet said. “The two were competent and open and enthusiastic about the training and even though they were accompanied by an KCNA official the training was unsupervised.

The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP

“We had worked with the same official before during the negotiations and got on well, so we took the opportunity to show him how we deal with photo and video stories from other countries – which he found interesting even though he acknowledged that many of those types of stories would not be done by KCNA.”

AFP’s Seoul bureau chief will run the bureau while teams from South Korea, Hong Kong or China will be sent every two months or so as part of the deal. “So far, we sent a team in July, again in September and another is planned for November,” he said. “There are no visa problems and now the visas are issued in Hong Kong rather than having to go via Beijing.”

The November mission we will try to get, among others, the August flood aftermath story, but it is difficult – or at least time consuming – to get approval. “Typically, we submit a list of say 20 potential stories in the hope of getting five or six to run with.”

So far the Pyongyang team has been involved in stock footage shoots of the capital as well as getting on the streets and train stations and the like; or reacting when someone noteworthy visits Pyongyang. “We did cover the 15th Pyongyang International Film festival [brainchild of the cinema-obsessed “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-ll in September.

“It’s really a way of showing as much as we can about what’s happening in Pyongyang. Many of our clients – particularly in South Korea and Japan – want as many images as they can get from the country.”

In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

One of the ways the AFP team gets around in North Korea is to work with NGOs, “often going to places that are normally difficult for journalists to get to”. A case in point is that they were able to cover the floods in North Hamgyong province, where some 140 people were killed and 35,000 homes destroyed, by being part of an NGO team. “It enabled us to get some great footage,” he said.

Everything produced by AFP in North Korea will be edited by AFP people, mainly at the  regional headquarters in Hong Kong. “There is no difference from anywhere else in the region where we have people taking photos or videos or writing stories. They send their material to Hong Kong, and it will be exactly the same for North Korean stories.”

As in other countries where AFP operates there is official monitoring. “But monitoring is not a problem. It would be a problem if we were censored. The big issue for us is to go there and to report or shoot what we see… and this job won’t be much different than the one we do in
other countries where it is difficult to work.”

Once a story is finished and on the “wires” that might be another story. “So far we have had no negative feedback from government officials,” Massonnet said. “We will see where the limits are of what is possible to do and what is not. If we think it is worth doing and reporting about, then we will do it. It may be difficult sometimes, but that doesn’t prevent us from working and getting good material.”

Apart from a few big occasions such as mass rallies and big celebrations, foreign media don’t report from North Korea very often. “So we have a very rare opportunity to be there every month and to deliver content to our Asian clients who have big expectations about our North Korea coverage.”

Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013. North Korea mounted its largest ever military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War, displaying its long-range missiles at a ceremony presided over by leader Kim Jong-Un. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013.  AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

Massonnet likened the Pyongyang experience with Beijing in the 70s and 80s when correspondents had no official contacts or news sources and had to rely on what they saw in the streets as reporting beyond the city was all but impossible. However, when the big story came – China opening up – the resident bureaux could move fast.

“It makes sense to be in Pyongyang, not only because we don’t have much competition from the few journalists who go there, but also there are some opportunities to make connections so that you are ready when the big story breaks,” he said.

Massonnet said that even today in China, how many sources are there within the Chinese Communist Party to cover real political stories? You are left with the economic stories and speculation.

“The opening of an AFP bureau in Pyongyang will further strengthen the agency’s international network,” said the AFP chief executive, Emmanuel Hoog at the opening ceremony. “AFP’s role is to be present everywhere in the world in order to fulfil its news mission as completely as possible, in particular through images.”

AFP – which is a public company but governed by a board of representatives from French news organisations and the government – has 200 bureaux across 150 countries.

Dying in the pursuit of news

PanelJournalists as targets in conflict zones is a relatively new thing as militias and some governments around the world seek to control the message by killing the messenger. The FCC’s Journalism Conference heard from those who have been there.

The FCC’s Roll of Honour lists those killed in Indochina and Korea while on the job: a case of wrong place, wrong time. However, a new name was added in 2014, Sky News cameraman and former member Mick Deane. In late 2013 he was filming in the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp in Egypt when he was shot and killed by a sniper.

“In the old days, a press card was like a protection, but now more and more journalists have been targeted and killed,” said Eric Wishart, a member of AFP’s global news management, who led a panel discussion on the increasingly dangerous world for journalists.

“The game and the stakes have changed tremendously,” according to Marc Lavine, AFP’s editor-in-chief for Asia. ”In the mid-90s when I went to Afghanistan as a war correspondent, I had very little training and was equipped with just a pen and notebook.

“There was always the danger of being hurt or killed if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you were not targeted so you weren’t always looking over your shoulder expecting to have someone come out at you.”

In the past 15 years we have seen a complete move away from that, with militants targeting journalists in a propaganda game. “Film of executions in Syria illustrate that incredibly well as killing a journalist stops the message and sends its own brutal message across the world,” he said.

“In Pakistan we saw protesting journalists attacked by police with live rounds and baton charges. While, closer to home journalists were targeted in the Mongkok riots earlier this year.”

The figures speak for themselves: the Committee to Protect Journalists said that 970 journalists have been killed in the past 20 years – two-thirds in the past 10 years alone. Of the 72 killed last year, two-thirds of them were targeted.

“One of my big fears is the kidnapping of journalists,” said Roger Clark, CNN’s vice-president for Asia and Hong Kong bureau chief. “If ISIS kidnapped a Western journalist from a big news organisation it would use that to maximum effect across social media – that scares the hell out of me.”

No press here

Always in the past journalists would identify themselves as journalists – not such a good idea
these days.

For AFP, Lavine said, “we have taken identification from our cars and some of our offices, although we mostly still have PRESS tags on our flak jackets. However, in some sensitive areas it’s more a liability than a protection.”

For Roger Clark there are some situations “where you do want to be identified as PRESS on your car, or on your flak jacket, but for other situations like when we recently sent one of our correspondents to Syria where she kept the lowest of the low profile and tried to blend in.

“When you talk to our security specialists the phrase they use all the time is ‘blend in’, which, thankfully, is easier these days with the cameras being very small. Unlike when we were in Iraq where we had to keep a low profile by using old cars to get around – we were constantly re-spraying them.”

CNN’s senior international correspondent Ivan Watson says the precautions journalists should take depend on the conflict. “If you are dealing with conventional armies then you do identify yourself as the military usually represents the government, and has a chain of command and responsibility.

“But when you are dealing with militias it’s all about blending in,” he said. “During the US occupation of Iraq we used to hide in the back of crappy old taxis – basically our best defence at that point.

“It is a very strange development that we think that the violence against journalists – most of it directed against local journalists – has grown even though the number of cellphones and distribution systems for pictures and information now in use has magnified.

“It kills me that some governments will go after me and my professional TV crew, yet all those people running around with cellphones taking pictures – and uploading them to Facebook – don’t appear to be targeted.”

Clark spoke about recent threats to major news organisations by the Taliban in Afghanistan for not properly presenting the Taliban’s views. “However, the people who take the brunt of these threats are not the guys who parachute in for a story, it’s the guys who have to stay behind in those worlds – and very often the least protected.”

Covering disasters and surviving

Photo: AFP

The CNN team led by Andrew Stevens was on Tacloban in the Philippines and faced the full force of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 as it devastated the island. Dramatic – and award-winning – footage was shown of the typhoon which killed more than 10,000 people.

“They were there before the storm hit,” Clark said. “With our good contacts in the country we got our reporters there very quickly.”

At the time Clark was director of international coverage in Atlanta and, like they always do with big stories, sat down and did a review.

“We knew we had let the front-line team down badly because we could not supply them with the support they needed,” he said. “Normally we pride ourselves in making sure our correspondents and producers can eat, sleep in reasonable conditions and drink clean water. Now, we had supplies but they were stuck on another island.”

Out of this experience CNN now has a different deployment procedure. “When we deploy – whether on disaster or high-security stories – someone has to hit the pause button and take stock.”

CNN has now put together what they call “grab bags” that are in every bureau designed to support a team of three for three to four days – everything from toothpaste to tampons, including first aid kits, tents, sleeping bags, floor liners, mosquito nets, water-purification tablets, matches, sun cream, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, batteries and even instant noodles.

“It’s a great asset and you don’t have to think about logistics as you race off to do a story,” Clark said. “You also need to ensure that your team is not bigger than the resources you have.”

Sometimes what they need to bring doesn’t fit into the grab bag. “Sometimes we need to bring a generator – and find fuel – to a disaster zone as part of the philosophy that we have to create all our own infrastructure to operate,” Watson said. “It means you don’t have a cameraman falling down from dehydration because he is carrying heavy equipment around.”

Having sufficient cash is another issue. “Keep in mind that ATMs often don’t work in disasters,” he said. “We have had to bail out other journalists many times.

“It’s all in the preparation: you may need body armour, gas masks or long underwear, but it’s the grab-bag idea that ensures survival.”

Watson, reflecting on his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, said it’s absolutely essential to do specific hostile environment training. “And it’s not for just surviving war, conflict or disaster, you need to able to know how to begin surviving when the whole structure of the society has been ripped apart.”

Local riots

Marc Lavine’s advice to Hong Kong-based journalists thinking of diving into the next riot: don’t rush in when you don’t know the score.“All it takes is a big rock hitting your head, or finding yourself between the police and the rioters.”

“We are always trying to get to the scene to see what’s happening,” says Ivan Watson, “but at some point you have to assess what’s going on around you – the worst place you can be is between two groups shaping up for a fight.”

He suggests that you need to try and figure out which side you are safe on… “or the side with the better guns”.

“It’s also important to remember that the riot or conflict always evolves or degenerates during the course of the conflict. When I first started going into Syria from Turkey the government didn’t welcome us and we would need to hide among the rebels. However, in the course of a year, the rebels started kidnapping journalists so they became a bigger threat. We finished up going in with the same military which had horrified us before.”

Roger Clark says it is down to training. “We need to be trained well enough to know just what our limits are before it is too late to turn back.”

Lavine agrees and adds that “we need to look at the kind of training we are delivering to journalists these days.

“Some 10 to 15 years ago in the time of Afghanistan and Iraq, war-type training was needed,” he said. “Often these days it’s training around public order – riots and the like. The chances of you getting killed in a riot in Hong Kong or wherever is fairly small, but with the huge amount of stones and bottles flying around, serious injuries are likely.”

While body armour is useful, it appears reinforced glasses and hard hats are more the thing for riots.

“When you are in a country that is going through destructive changes or conflict, you need exceptional planning for your teams – with the expectation that nothing works according to plan,” Watson said.

A dramatic video was shown of an incident in Iraq in 2014 when Watson joined an Iraq air force relief helicopter to take aid to a religious group besieged on the top of a mountain by ISIS forces. In the end the helicopter crew had to fire machine guns to protect the craft coming and going. Besides dropping relief goods, they also picked as many terrified people people as they could. Inevitably families were split up with the ensuing emotional chaos.

Watson said “there was little advance warning of what we were getting into”.

“This sort of stuff isn’t a game and it messes you up for a while. After some of these types of incidents I have gone into counselling – it’s essential to do this and playing at being a tough guy is not on.”

Trauma and PTSD can also occur well away from the field. Clark said that on the CNN international desk they have Arabic speakers vetting all this horrific footage pouring in relentlessly from the Middle East – sometimes the footage is worse than what you see in the field.

“So as managers we have to keep a close eye on these people,” he said. “At CNN we are pretty good in making sure that people know what to do if they are struggling to cope. It is only in recent times that it has been recognised that PTSD affects journalists in the field and back in the newsroom.”

AFP_JHET#1C_web Photos: AFP

 RISC XII>Day 4_Final simulations_web From L to R: AFP's Cris Bouroncle, Peruvian based in Santiago, Chile, Eric Feferberg and Jack Guez both French based in Paris, US news reporter Charles Hoskinson from the English Desk in Washington DC and Romeo Gacad from the Phillipines based in Manila, part of the AFP staff in Kuwait to cover the US-led attack in Iraq. AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO

We measure site performance with cookies to improve performance.