The Two Versions of WTO
The following is a translation of an InMediaHK piece by Chu Hoi-dick (and Lam Oiwan) of InMediaHK. The piece also appeared in Ming Pao.
Oiwan and I are both members of InMediaHK.net. Either because we have too much self-importance or else we are suffering from the victims' vain hopes, I feel that after the developments of the WTO week, InMediaHK is beginning to be like the Monkey King wrecking havoc in the Celestial Palace. On one hand, we were sharp and acerbic in our criticisms of the mainstream media and this caused the generals and soldiers in the heavens to be uncomfortable and yet they could not refrain from reading us. On the other hand, the actions of our so-called civilian journalists astonished people. We gathered news and we wrote reports, but we also shouted slogans, we jumped into the harbor, we did the "three paces, one kowtow" ritual, we got drunk with the Korean farmers at Wukaisha, we signed an open letter to thank the overseas demonstrators and we are still working hard for those demonstrators who are being charged by the police. I asked Oiwan to speak with me about two things: let us discuss how the mainstream media covered the WTO and explain just what these civilian journalists are up to.
What were the mainstream media selling?
On December 17, (the "longest" day, according to a certain newspaper), from noon on, I was drenched by the water cannons, got pepper spray into my eyes and breathed a few minutes of tear gas (which ought to be re-named suffocating gas), and then I was "surrounded" on Gloucester Road from night to the morning. When I got home, I wrote a civilian journalism piece titled "The police delayed the arrests in order to punish the demonstrators." In the report, I pointed out that the demosntration on Gloucester Road was obviously not going to be violent again, but the police deliberately delayed the arrest actions and humiliated and tormented the demonstrators unnecessarily. As soon as the report was posted on the Internet, it was immediately called "the most biased piece of reporting" and there followed a heated debate about the meaning of objective reporting. (note: translated at Discussions on Civilian Journalism)
Banging the drums, dancing or causing an uproar?
Oiwan is always able to wrap my confusion with cold and precise words. "I feel that your subjectivity actually filled up some of the gaps in the understanding by the mainstream media. You experienced and participated in the entire incident, and this allowed you to provide a deeper interpretation." For example, at just past midnight, the demonstrators began to bang the drums and danced. "We also danced in the crowd, and therefore we understood that everybody was cold and used the dancing to warm their bodies up. We were not just observing with cold eyes on the sideline, but we were also engaged emotionally. The television reporters doing the live broadcast said that the demosntrators were getting emotionally aroused and creating an uproar. Their interpretation was vastly divergent from the reality." "Yes, yes, yes. I think that the demonstrators on Gloucester Road would not be fighting anymore. I was not relating any objective set of facts. I was with the South Koreans for several days, and I naturally came to this interpretation."
Did they charge Hennessy Road and then rock the police vehicle?
To express the total real experience, it must necessarily be subjective. The mainstream media only assembled some isolated experiences and then attempted to use the constructed objectivity to conceal their subjectivity. Sometimes, they conceal it so well that one must read very carefully to reveal it. Oiwan offered another Internet discussion: "A friend looked at the visual images from a certain television station and discovered that the edited clips were not in chronological order. Sometimes, they don't mention the locations. A certain television station first showed the clip of demonstrators rushing out to Hennessy Road on the evening of December 17. This was then followed by the demonstrators pushing the police vehicle on Lockhart Road. The effect was to suggest that the demonstrators charged across the road and then the violent scene occurred. But all the eyewitnesses knew that the demonstrators pushed the police vehicles and then they turned around and rushed onto Hennessy Road."
There are plenty of examples of drama manufactured by the television stations. The most classic was the reporter for a certain television station wearing the helmet to do live broadcasting from the peaceful demonstration area. She was booed by those present (including 'Anti-WTO Avian Flu' Tom Grundy). All these dramatic effects were about violence and the prediction of violence. Oiwan said that she does not deny that violence occurred, but the attention paid by the mainstream media to violence was disproportionate. On the first day, the total duration of "action" was about 30 minutes, but that accounted for more than 90% of the reporting. I remember a certain televisoin station showing its own promotional clip consisting of a series of violent scenes and then demonstrators being arrested while kicking and screaming. The television station bills itself as being always on the front line and packaged a Hong Kong urban legend of "The great Hong Kong police put the South Korean rioters in check." Is this the kind of objectivity that we want?
WTO Conference = Security News?
"The mainstream media were fulfilling their own predictions of violence." Since the middle of this year, Oiwan has been criticizing the mainstream media's strategies for covering the WTO conference. For the several months before the WTO conference, the local Hong Kong news reporters in the crime beat were covering the news. Why? She said that the crime beat reporters were working with the police. The police put forward a series of security measures: the bricks in the street were glued to the ground, the schools cancelled classes, the trash cans were removed, and one after another rehearsal. Meanwhile the reporters were going around Wanchai looking for security holes, such as "The trash cans in the Wanchai MTR station can be used to store bombs" and other ludicrous stories. "Going into the WTO conference week, the media reported that gas masks have sold out and security uniforms were stolen to accuse the anti-WTO people for planning secret violent action. Finally, after a couple of days, the police said that all these were rumors and that it was the media organizations which bought up all the gas masks."
Oiwan critcized the mainstream media for pushing violence but declined to talk about the culure of protest in South Korea and they would not distinguish between "orderly use of force" and "anarchistic style violence." "I have encountered anarchistic style violence in the Czech Republic, and most of it was destructive behavior done by individuals. That sort of action can be called a riot." I said, "The newspaper headline of 'Wanchai has fallen' is the one that is really remarkable." Hong Kong people are like that. They even want to be known for violent demonstration. Even if there wasn't any, they still want to label it as such. Collectively, they want to console themselves and they want to feel good. Oiwan agreed and said: "This is how news has become entertainment. They provide you with an imaginary space. The witnesses at the scene think it is absurd, but those who are not at the scene have an imaginary space."
What is InMediaHK doing?
InMediaHK usually give people the impression that (as in the first part of this essay) it stands on a moral high ground from which they look down and criticize others. But this time, it has become the object of being doubted and criticized itself. During the WTO week, our civilian journalist often wore several hats. Sometimes, he/she took photographs and wrote reports. Sometimes, he/she got worked up and shouted slogans or else they even joined some of the more unusual activities of the South Koreans (the three Hong Kong residents who jumped into the harbor were two InMediaHK civilian journalists and a friend).
How can someone jump into the harbor and write reports too?
Oiwan must have anticipated that I would ask such a question. "I do not fully encourage them to jump into the harbor or do 'three paces, one kowtow' but I respect their decisions. They are in charge of their lives and they have to right to choose (I remember that Oiwan wanted to jump into the harbor too to encourage her friend). Ultimately, the position of civilian journalist is not a job. It is about personal interest. We do not have a central command." If the mainstream media want to build up the relationship to the reporting, then InMediaHK places more importance on the relationship to the understanding. It cannot be denied that even if the civilian journalist does not fully support the position of the demonstrators, then he/she is at least closer to them. I feel that this closeness is what enabled the civilian journalist to possess the triple identities of reporter, friend and supporter.
But one should take InMediaHK to be a different kind of party organ. During the entire movement, InMediaHK held firmly to its own intiatives. Oiwan said: "During the WTO week, the actions of InMediaHK exhibited signs of media activism." An important action by InMediaHK during the period was to prepare an open letter thanking the demonstrators from all over the world for showing the people of Hong Kong a new model of resistance and enabling us to learn about global affairs. This letter has been translated into multiple languages. This powerful and moving letter was written by Oiwan.
"The civilian journalist emphasizes emotional involvement, and the letter of thanks was the production of the emotions from inside our hearts. To a certain extent, it has influenced the actions of the South Korean demonstrators. The mainstream media in South Korea do not approve of the activities by the farmers here in Hong Kong. The South Korean farmers were also wary about the people of Hong Kong initially, because they feel that the people of Hong Kong were influenced by the mainstream media and probably thought that the farmers were violent rioters." On December 16, the South Korean demonstrators charged the South Korean consulate. On that day, the civilian journalists gave them copies of the letter of thanks translated into Korean (InMediaHK distributed several thousand copies of the letter of thanks). "On the same evening, the South Korean media reported about it and it was fed back to the South Korean demonstrators. This caused them to pay more attention to their relationship with the people of Hong Kong. During the demonstrations over the next two days, the South Korean farmers and the Hong Kong citizens interacted more frequently and there were slogans of "We love Hong Kong" and "We love Korea" being shouted as well as clapping and cheering by people on the roadside."
"Yes, we have become part of the movement. If the mainstream media want to interpose through reporiting on the violence in order to achieve the self-fulling prediction, then our point of entry is to reflect the positive aspects and to emphasize the positive implications for Hong Kong society." She emphasized that InMediaHK does not want to realize any specific political objective. The focus and plan of each civilian journalist and InMediaHK itself is constantly changing. "The final accomplishment is the transformation of the movement as well as the transformation of oneself."
We don't mind to be quoted by name!
In the eyes of mainstream media, InMediaHK (an Internet civilian journalist organization founded in 2004 after 7/1) is not only a media troublemaker that is hard to classify and obeys no rules, but it has strangely also assumed a position of being a source of information. During the WTO week, several core civilian journalist members of InMediaHK were sources for mainstream media reporters and cited as "informed sources close to the Korean farmers" or "eyewitnesses." Oiwan complained with some satisfaction: "Frequently, reporters come to InMediaHK to get information and then claimed it for themselves. We don't mind to be quoted by name!