To Die for A Noble Cause or To Preserve Oneself to Ensure the Cause survives?

Lee Yee Chong - Reporter, nowTV    (Translated by May Tam)

While I was writing this piece, Professor Ai Xiaoming released her article titled “Overseas reporters, can you tell me how Tan Zuoren assist in your reporting?” Every word of Prof Ai’s writing is punchy and her arguments trigger deep reflections.  I have to state unambiguously that my article here is not to challenge Prof Ai’s points of view, but I just want to share my experiences with fellow journalists.

In early April 2009, a cameraman and I went to Beichuan of Sichuan province to interview some of the parents of those students who died in the earthquake a year ago, and had learnt that there was suspected graft during the time when some secondary schools in Beichuan were being built. That involved re-sale of building materials to villagers for profits.  We had obtained a petition of the concerned person(s) and other relevant materials; and after we had interviewed those witnesses who were willing to expose the truth, we then visited a person, Y, who is a key person in the issue.   

Just as Prof did, we also went a long distance, walking all the way over rugged mountain paths to arrive at the home of Y.  Again, just like the “overseas reporters” Prof Ai met in Hong Kong, Y resolutely rejected our request to have his face appear on the TV screen. That day, just as with Prof Ai, I was also in great rage.

However, the ending of my story is different from that of Prof Ai, and that’s something that happened later.

While I was still trying persuade Y - his wife and their newborn baby in her arms were also present at their home – a big piece of sailcloth covered the torn ground. It was so because Y is a victim of the earthquake. Five minutes after I arrived at Y’s “home”, there public security officers were coming to arrest us.  Y was familiar with such situation and he guided us to hide in a secret chamber upstairs. After a long while, we escaped through a small lane at the back of the house. Until we reached a safe place, we phoned the driver we had hired to come and take us away. 

However, accompanying the driver were two plainclothes cops.  Without saying anything, the cops immediately dragged me and my cameraman into the car and told the driver to drive us to the nearby police substation. We showed them our media passes issued by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR, but the public security officers still detained us with the excuse that we had not notified the “local” government before we started our news gathering. They also tried to prevent us from using the phone. However we, putting forward the reason as protecting our own personal safety, we immediately phoned the media company we served to report our situation. 

That day, we were detained for eight hours, searched and having our tapes checked. The public security officers first interrogated the driver, obtaining such information as our itinerary, purpose of our trip, how long we had stayed there and whom we had met. Later, my cameraman and I were interrogated serparately; and after a while, the officers verified the information given by both of us so as to make sure we two had not told lies or concealed anything.

During the interrogation, the public security officier(s) took notes of what we said, recorded my work in Sichuan, including the people I had interviewed, our sources of interviews, the purpose of the reporting, what documents I had read ......  They repeatedly bombarded me with questions like who had contacted us and what information those people had given us. I gradually realized that such questions were not targeted at me, but would rather be used for evidence to prove the accusations against those we had interviewed.

It suddenly dawned on me that if Y accepted to be interviewed, the video tape of his interview would very likely have become the evidence used by the government to launch charges against him. Thus there were no reasons to blame Y for his declining to be interviewed.

After clearing up my doubts about Y’s refusal to be interviewed, my statement given was then made with “30% truth and 70% unanswered or false”.  For the unimportant information, I of course could tell the truth.  But when it came to something involving or likely put other’s interests and security at stake, I just evaded giving answers by saying something like “I forgot” or “no idea”. In short, the answers given would be, to the greatest extent, not endangering the security of the interviewees.  Telling lies is something inevitable when necessary.

Of course, this is not the only way out. I heard that a senior reporter from another TV station use other means to handle the hindrances she encountered when covering the death of the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Zhao Ziyang.  The reporter tried to put forward his/her cause with deep passion as well as powerful arguments, and the people who made things difficult for the reporting eventually were so moved that they let the reporter do the reporting freely.  I think such a strategy is the best and it’s worthwhile for me to learn.  

In the end, I was asked to put my fingerprints on every answer I gave in my statement, and also sign the so-called “statement of repentance”, having admitted in writing that we had made mistakes this time for “doing news reporting without media permit”. At last, a police car came to “escort” us out of Beichuan. 

Prof Ai’s remarks are indeed true that Tan Zuoren is really respectable for his unyielding bearing demonstrated in his contributions for the Sichuan earthquake victims, his ideal of pursuing social justice and his never-turning back resolution in materializing his cause in spite of being repaid by imprisonment. However, among those righteous people in Sichuan we know, there is no lack of those who have acted underground in order to disclose the truth to the world but at the same time hope to safeguard the security of themselves as well as their families. As long as they are still alive, the channels for disseminating information to the outside world are still there.  I regard both actions of “dying for a noble cause” and “preserving oneself to ensure the cause survives” as equally important. It is especially so in a democratic and diverse society, there should be even greater tolerance to accommodate different values held by different people.  

There is a Western saying: Don’t judge the worth of another man’s actions until we have walked at least a mile in his shoes. That is easier said than done. However as a journalist, I can anticipate that should we uphold such a principle, our news reporting would be surely more balanced and we journalists would empathise more with the people as well as issues we encounter.


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