Was Hong Kong journalists’ aggressive questioning justified?

A representative of the Philippines Consulate (left) receives a letter of petition from members of Hong Kong Journalists Association during a protest at the Philippines Consulate in Hong Kong on Oct. 8, 2013. A journalist association is protesting th
A representative of the Philippines Consulate (left) receives a letter of petition from members of Hong Kong Journalists Association during a protest at the Philippines Consulate in Hong Kong on Oct. 8, 2013. A journalist association is protesting the treatment of Hong Kong reporters covering a regional economic summit in Indonesia, saying they were treated like a serious security threat by the organizers who barred them from the event after they shouted questions at Philippine President Benigno Aquino. -- PHOTO: AP 
Mr Tse Chi Hang (second from left) and Ms Lee Mei Chun (right), family members of Hong Kong tour guide Masa Tse, who was killed during the 2010 Manila hostage crisis, and survivor Yik Siu Ling (second from right) observe a moment of silence outside t
Mr Tse Chi Hang (second from left) and Ms Lee Mei Chun (right), family members of Hong Kong tour guide Masa Tse, who was killed during the 2010 Manila hostage crisis, and survivor Yik Siu Ling (second from right) observe a moment of silence outside the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong on August 23, 2013. The group is taking legal action against the Philippine government after claiming that Manila has ignored demands for an official apology and compensation. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Ms Yik Siu Ling took a picture of herself on May 31, 2013 after a jaw reconstruction surgery at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Hong Kong. The mother of one survived the 2010 Manila hostage crisis but was left with a shattered jaw after a flying bullet
Ms Yik Siu Ling took a picture of herself on May 31, 2013 after a jaw reconstruction surgery at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Hong Kong. The mother of one survived the 2010 Manila hostage crisis but was left with a shattered jaw after a flying bullet struck her chin. -- PHOTO: ST

MEDIA delegates from Hong Kong found themselves in the news when three of them were booted from this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Sunday. 

Their offence? Being too aggressive in pressing Philippine president Benigno Aquino for answers on the 2010 Manila hostage siege, which left eight Hong Kong tourists dead following a botched rescue attempt by the Philippine police.

An Apec official wagged a disapproving finger at the reporters and accused them of “screaming”. Another official said they had “ambushed” one of the visitors, as shown in Hong Kong’s Now TV footage. An Indonesian official in charge of Apec media centre later told AFP that the trio had to be evicted “out of security concerns” as “they didn’t talk normally but were very demonstrative, like they were protesting".

Their media passes were confiscated and they were even taken to the local police station the next day before being asked to move out of their hotel, according to South China Morning Post.

Had the Hong Kong team - two journalists and a camera crew - really crossed the line? 

I watched the video clip a few times, and concluded that the journalists were loud, but it might have been necessary to be heard by Mr Aquino, who was surrounded by an entourage. The shoving of their microphones in his direction could have been discomforting to the president, but picking up good audio was understandably more of a priority to them than making the leader feel good.

One could say that their provocative line of questioning, from “Would you apologise?” to “You’re ignoring Hong Kong people, right?” might be a wee bit disrespectful, but others could counter that it is their duty to fire tough questions and it is up to the leader to answer or parry them. 

I have seen how the competitive Hong Kong media work when a huge entourage of them flew in to cover a movie press conference at the Esplanade, a performing arts centre in Singapore, two years ago. The local press, who had arrived early, took the seats at our designated tables, with our video cameras anchored at a reasonable distance from the stage. But when the Hong Kong press arrived, many of them swiftly lined up a fresh row of chairs in front of us, propped up their cameras in front of ours, and grabbed any interviewees in their order of preference instead of playing by the organiser’s rules.

Still, even as I was mildly annoyed by how they reconfigured the setting to their advantage at others' expense, I didn't think they deserved to be thrown out for "security concerns".

The question now is: was the Hong Kong journalists' aggressive questioning of Mr Aquino justified?

To many Hong Kongers, who watched in disbelief the live broadcast of the hostage siege in downtown Manila and the bungled rescue operation that followed, it probably was. 

A friend of mine from Hong Kong, who works in the media, said Hong Kongers will not forget the incident easily, as the shocking visuals still replay in the minds of many, especially those glued to the TV screen on August 23, 2010.

It did not help that just ahead of the third anniversary of the hostage siege this August, the Taiwanese government had succeeded in getting a formal apology from Mr Aquino over the Philippine coast guards’ killing of a Taiwanese fisherman, whose vessel had in May ventured into disputed waters claimed by both sides. 

Some Hong Kongers questioned why their government had not been as effective in extracting an apology.

Although Manila’s current mayor Joseph Estrada had apologised on behalf of Manila people during an August interview with Cable TV Hong Kong, the gaping wounds remain for some Hong Kongers, particularly family members of the slain victims and those who survived the horrific bus siege with permanent injuries. 

Ms Yik Siu Ling, a 36-year-old survivor, said over the phone that she would not accept the apology from Mr Estrada, as he was neither the president nor the Manila mayor during the incident.

The mother of one, who returned from South Korea last week after a sponsored consultation with a plastic surgeon there, has gone through more than 30 jaw reconstruction surgeries in the past three years. Her lower lip and jaw were shattered by a flying bullet when her hostage-taker, a disgruntled former cop seeking reinstatement, flew into a rage and opened fire after learning that his brother was arrested in the midst of his negotiation with the authority. 

For Ms Yik, whose jaw is still not fully restored, there is also the added urgency of getting a formal compensation from the Aquino administration, as she admitted frankly that she had spent the bulk of her HK$600,000 (S$99,291) insurance payout - mostly on food and her five-year-old son’s pre-school classes.

Her hopes are slim though, as Mr Aquino had on Tuesday maintained that from his perspective, only the hostage-taker was responsible for the tragedy. He said he could not apologise as it would mean admission that "we are at fault as a country, as a government and as a people", the Philippine's Inquirer reported of the president's meeting with Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun Ying on the last day of the Apec summit. 

In Mr Aquino’s defence, his refusal to apologise for the hostage crisis is not without basis, as some analysts point out. Dr Albert Tzeng from the Netherland's International Institute for Asian Studies and Dr Ian Storey, a Singapore-based Asian security expert, said the Manila rescue team was guilty of a botched job, but not murder - unlike the Philippine coast guards, who were found guilty of homicide in the Taiwanese fisherman's death.

The Manila police also report directly to their mayor but not the president. Hence, Manila's then-mayor Alfredo Lim was directly responsible for the bungled rescue, and not Mr Aquino. Still, Hong Kongers are likely to remain upset with the Philippine president for bringing only minor charges against Mr Lim.

While the Hong Kong media did not manage to get immediate answers from Mr Aquino, they did bring international attention back to the hostage incident, long after major news agencies around the world had stopped reporting on it.

Xinhua also reported that China had made clear to the Philippines to look into the Hong Kong victims' requests and take “substantial measures” to resolve the dispute. 

There is a silver lining in this episode after all.

cpohkwan@sph.com.sg