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Foreign press clubs feel the pinch

Dwindling membership and autocratic governments weigh heavily on media hangouts

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Foreign press clubs feel the pinch

Former Thai education minister, Chaturon Chaisang, is arrested by Thai soldiers at the Foreign Correspondents’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok in this May 27, 2014 file photo. Foreign press clubs in the region are feeling the heat due to the changing nature of journalism, and because governments are less tolerant of journalists from abroad. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

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Famous for mixing watering holes with work and politics, the region's foreign correspondent clubs are doing it tough. Governments are less tolerant of journalists from abroad, a rapidly changing industry has drastically reduced membership and internal squabbling is undermining unity when it's needed most.

It's a dreadful recipe. In Bangkok, the junta of Prayut Chan-o-cha — which took power in a coup d'etat more than four years ago — has been swift to close events held by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) it deemed too controversial.

That came to a head in September last year when the club planned a panel discussion on a United Nations independent fact-finding report about the alleged genocide of Rohingya Muslims committed by the military in Myanmar.

The Thai brass arrived claiming the evening could "cause unrest and endanger national security" and the night was cut short. The FCCT argued there were "no grounds whatsoever for such suspicions," noting the club had held such forums for more than 62 years.

It was the sixth event canceled since the coup, with the Thai military seemingly more concerned about its relationship with generals across the border than notions of justice and the slaughter of thousands during the exodus to Bangladesh.


Common problems

Around the same time, another story began unfolding at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong (FCCHK) after an invitation to speak was extended to Andy Chan, an activist advocating independence for the former British colony — a red line issue that angers China.

Victor Mallet, the club's first vice-president and Asia editor for the Financial Times, chaired the event and was later denied entry to the Chinese enclave without explanation. To the best of anyone's recollection, that was unprecedented and the incident left the FCCHK "shocked and baffled" by the decision.

A petition supporting Mallet garnered around 35,000 names.

"This action places journalists working in Hong Kong in an opaque environment in which fear and self-censorship may replace the freedom and confidence essential to a free society," the FCCHK board said in a statement that could easily be applied to correspondents working across Asia.

It's far cry from the glamor days of hosting world leaders and celebrities like Clark Gable, Mohammad Ali, Isabella Rossalini and Peter Ustinov when a trip to the club was a regular must on the social calendar where "spooks, spivs and hacks" could rub shoulders and trade information.

But the problems with foreign press clubs go much deeper.

Dwindling finances in an industry convulsed by the electronic age and still savaged by the 2008 global financial crisis have left their mark on both FCCs and clubs in Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines.

A lack of correspondents in Hong Kong, coupled with ambitious board members who prefer to see the club as an entertainment venue rather than a bastion of the free press, has resulted in the admission of associates made up largely of businessmen, lawyers and accountants, and in large numbers.

Associates pay more and subsidize correspondents, who no longer enjoy the generous expense packages that big-name mastheads once delivered.

But disputes between those with vested business interests and those speaking out about free press issues are not uncommon and, despite a common acronym, rarely do FCCs have much to do with each other and a coordinated response to any government crackdown is limited.

That lack of unity has undermined the pursuit of noble ideals.


The alternatives

There are plenty of younger journalists graduating into the ranks of foreign correspondents, but their pay packets are smaller, many go straight into freelancing and social media is challenging the established pillars of the industry.

Groups like Presstitutes of Asia are using social media and enabling journalists to organize jobs, local fixers, accommodation and access to relevant knowledge in the same way that correspondents holding court in a press club once did.

Club magazines, a traditional outlet for alternative opinions, have been cut back and are on the verge of extinction, while their online replacements lack gravitas. But those failings have not stopped press clubs from speaking out.

On a broader level, the retired editor of the South China Morning Post, David Armstrong, recently said he was impressed with the way clubs have stood up to the pressures exercised by governments and the dramatic changes within the industry.

"The FCCT has been doing it tough," he said. "In the wake of the global financial crisis, a lot of companies withdrew their correspondents, shrinking the club's natural membership pool. The club, however, remains strong. It is quick to condemn attacks on journalists and media freedom in Thailand and in the nearby region."

That includes Cambodia, where press freedom was under assault by an iron-fisted government in the lead-up to elections in July, resulting in the closure of one English-language newspaper, the forced sale of another to government-friendly interests, the closure of dozens of broadcasters and a crackdown on online media, in particular social platforms like Facebook.

As a result, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) has seen its pool of foreign journalists drop from more than 150 to less than 30, severely curtailing coverage of the country, which reverted to a one-party government after the main opposition party was banned from contesting recent elections.

"The club has witnessed some pretty wild times. OPCC events and parties were once a favorite draw card, not just among journalists but also with diplomats, business people and government insiders," said a member who declined to be named.

"The government crackdown and closure of The Cambodia Daily and forced sale of The Phnom Penh Post have been the big issues. But it also became harder and harder to get work visas and press passes, and that's forced many freelance journalists to look for greener pastures."


Where next?

Favorite pastures now include Malaysia. Journalists were hounded there under the previous regime of former prime minister Najib Razak, ousted at elections in May and now facing corruption charges.

His removal from office has resulted in a more relaxed media atmosphere, a point not lost on the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia (FCCM), which has embarked on a membership drive and is hoping to "bring back what made the club great in the first place."

Correspondents are also hoping that Thailand will follow suit after elections in February, and in Cambodia where an unchallenged government has softened its approach to dissenting voices since the July ballot.

However, those in Hong Kong remain on troubled ground and all clubs can expect to be compromised by fewer members, less money and cranky politicians eager to silence the messenger who doesn't toe a friendly line. Their future is far from certain.

Luke Hunt is the opinion editor for ucanews.com, is a paid-up life member of the FCCHK, an overseas member of the FCCT, a founding member of the FCCM, former president of the OPCC and its current treasurer.

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