Outrage still smolders over police beatings of three Hong Kong television journalists covering inter-ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, China – providing me plenty of conversation fodder with my students.
Yet the story behind the story was debate among journalists over if they should ever join a protest, forsaking their “observer” status. HKJA chief Yin-ting Mak addressed this Tuesday in a letter to association members:
Some journalists are concerned the younger generation may adopt such protest actions when they get blamed, assaulted or come under investigation in order to win glory … In principle, journalists should not be involved in news event so as to maintain objectivity in reporting. However, press freedom can and is also a news issue. When press freedom is trampled upon … reporters naturally become the main focus. I see no reason for holding back on involvement just because journalists are involved. It is like telling yourself to stop eating for fear of choking.
I always emphasize the need for reporters to be a neutral “fly on the wall,” detached from what they’re observing. But when they themselves are targeted, is silence tantamount to consent?
This sparked lively discussion among the half-dozen students I met Wednesday. As Carol put it, “If they beat my colleague and I do nothing, I may become afraid for my own rights and lose passion for telling the truth.”
It’s not black-and-white, yet there are consequences for speaking out. At first I thought, “Well, I suppose if they limited their protests to ‘their rights,’ but not criticize the government explicitly, that might work.” As our chat proceeded, though, I realized how naïve that was: How could Beijing not view the journalists’ protests as implicitly critical of an entire system that emboldens police to pummel them?
The “neutral” tag is tarnished regardless.