Thursday, August 10, 2006

The proof of the suing....by Michael Backman

Michael Backman
Aug 10, 2006
The Age

MANY in Asia see the media as an enemy. Rather than seeking to befriend journalists and commentators, they threaten them, often with defamation proceedings. Both governments and business do this not realising that their actions turn constructive critics into enemies.

Just last week, the Singapore Government announced that the Far Eastern Economic Review’s distribution in Singapore would now be contingent on it paying a $S200,000 ($A167,000) bond, a reserve from which legal bills would be paid if the Review is sued in a Singapore court. It must also name a legal representative in Singapore to deal with any law suits. Already its circulation is capped.

You’d think the Review was pornographic. But as far as the Singapore Government is concerned, it’s something far more dangerous: a source of independent opinion.

The bond was announced just after the Review published an interview with Chee Soon Juan, a Singapore opposition figure, an interview about which Lee Kuan Yew and his family reportedly had consulted their lawyers. (The interview can be read at www.feer.com/articles1/2006/0607/free/p024.html. See what I mean about how the Singapore Government gives publicity to its critics. They’ve just done it again.)

The previous week, the Singapore Government attacked as partisan a local newspaper columnist who’d written mildly about wealth disparity in Singapore. The newspaper fired the columnist three days later. When will the US invade to restore freedom and democratic principals, you might well ask?

My first encounter with intimidatory tactics came when I published a book, Asian Eclipse, in 1999. The first would-be litigant was Lee Ming Tee, a Malaysian living in Hong Kong who had acquired an Australian passport under the business migration program. I alleged in the book that he had had several run-ins with regulatory authorities. I said so because it was true.

However, through his London lawyers he threatened to sue me, the publishers and the distributors of the book unless it was immediately withdrawn, apologies were printed in newspapers around the world and damages were paid. I had, he claimed, damaged his reputation. Given that he was facing 11 counts of criminal fraud at the time, this seemed a bit rich. Furthermore, he wouldn’t have been able to appear at any hearings because the Hong Kong authorities had confiscated his passport. Ultimately he went to jail.

More than anything, the threat seemed to be designed to stop me from writing about him again. He wasted his money.

The tendency either to ignore the media or to view it as a servant occurs Asia-wide. Expatriate Australian Alistair Nicholas, who runs AC Capital Strategic Public Relations in Beijing, says that in China, local companies when they bother courting the media at all, tend to be ham-fisted about it. They pay the media to run positive stories.

The stories, says Nicholas, are usually written by a PR agency and read like “advertorials with syrup on top”. This has little impact with Chinese readers because, after 60 years of communism, they are very adept at spotting propaganda. Another approach is to call editors who are running negative stories and threaten to pull advertising unless the stories stop. Another is to call the journalists and threaten them.

But Nicholas sees some positive signs, even in China. The bigger Chinese companies that are looking to list overseas are starting to consider getting outside, professional PR help. His firm now has several large, state-owned enterprises as clients for training on media interview skills and crisis communications skills. But they remain the exception.

There is a saying in Asia that it’s the tall bamboo that catches the wind. Accordingly, many don’t want any publicity whatsoever unless it is entirely on their terms. There is no “Asian way” when it comes to transparency and the media.

And so there is a big role in Asia for consultants like Alistair Nicholas in hastening change, in persuading Asian business and political leaders not to fear the media but to learn how to use it to their advantage without resorting to crude means such as censorship, propagandising or the intimidatory use of defamation suits.

Change comes slowly but it does come.

michaelbackman@yahoo.com

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