Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Some personal stories of my life as a journalist (and more than that) and a request


In Portuguese, we have two words to mean a different kind of feeling related with fear: “receio” and "medo". The firts word is a bit more strong that “preoccupation”, in English, but does not mean that a person if afraid of something (have “medo”). I may have someting more than preoccupation (“receio”) about the future of my job, if I know that the newspaper where I work is in a bad financial situation. But I will be afraid (have "medo"), if I know that there is already a list of 10/15 journalist that will be fired in a short period of time.  I couldn’t find the precise word to reproduce that “nuance”, in English, about the difference between “receio” and “preoccupation”. “Receio” is more than “preoccupation”, but it´s not “fear”. Talking about fear, I always have in my mind a popular say, common in the small and poor country village where my father was born and I heard him mention several times: “Those who die of fear, are buried in s**t”.

I am afraid of only three things: a slow and painful death, due to a sickness like cancer; a long, mentally incapacitating illness like Parkinson or Alzheimer; and taxes, another of the very few certainties in life, as Mark Twain allegedly said (Benjamin Franklin was the first to refer those two things as unavoidable). Many years ago, I decided – and it’s a decision I will never change – that in the two first situations I mention, I will chose the moment when I will go. I will not wait for the “Grim Reaper” to take me and it does not matter that euthanasia is not authorized in Portugal. About taxes, well, the only way to escape paying it, is death…

Through my career as a journalist, I had a few occasions when I was threatened, two of them quite serious. I was not exactly preoccupied with those threats, but a little bit more than that, I had some “receio”, as I explained in the beginning of this post. The first time I was threatened in a serious way – and my family was also included –  was in Macau, when Rocha Vieira was Governor (he finished his mandate, in 1999, embroiled in a scandal of a money transfer, while still Governor, to a private foundation in Lisbon to be presided by himself). General Rocha Vieira, a Portuguese Army Officer, was a man who had a extreme difficulty of getting along with some basic principles that are common, in Europe, since the 18th Century: Freedom of Opinion, Expression and, above all, Press Freedom. When he left Macau, in 1999, after nine years of intimidation and threats against critical Portuguese newspapers, there was a a sigh of relief from all Portuguese journalists that also welcomed warmly the first Governor appointed by Beijing, Mr. Edmund Ho, a statesman, a real gentleman and a good and sincere friend of the local Portuguese journalists and community.

Cartoon published by "Ou Mun", the biggest Chinese newspaper of Macau, about the scandal Governor Rocha Vieria was embroiled
Both men had a completely opposite attitude about news and Press Freedom. General Rocha Vieira just hated all of those that dare to criticize his Government and didn’t made any effort to disguise it. Mr. Edmund Ho was a so polite man that he never showed any attitude of disregard of hostility against any journalist or newspaper, didn’t matter how critical the newspaper was to his Government. It’s a irony that the now retired Lieutenant-General Rocha Vieira is a employee of a Chinese Sate owned company, “Three Gorges”, that bought EDP, the former state-owned electricity supplier in Portugal and appointed him as their official representative in the Administration Board of the company – a very rare show of trust in a a “gweilo” (“foreign devil”, a common and depreciative expression in Chinese to refer Western foreigners) from the the Chinese Government. As far as I know, it’s the first time from 1807 until now, that a top Portuguese Army Officer works for a foreign Government. During the “Napoleonic Wars”, several high ranking Portuguese Army officers were part of the invading army the French emperor sent, in that year, to occupy the country.

Since 1995, when I became editor of a small Portuguese daily newspaper in Macau, I quickly realized that a civilized relationship, at least, between the General’s Government and the newspaper “Gazeta Macaense”, was impossible. The “motto” of his Government about the Media, as one of this Press advisers told in a interview, was clear: “More than journalists, we need ‘militants’ of the national goals”. This reminded of that phrase of Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. When there is no legal, moral or ethical reason to justify the actions of a Government, there is the habit – not acceptable in Democratic countries – to mention the “Superior interest of the Nation”, a very common phrase of the 48 years of Salazar’s dictatorship that Portugal endured.

So, I became some kind of “Public Enemy nº 1” of the General and, within less than two years, he made a deal with the owner of the newspaper, Mr. José Manuel Rodrigues, a Macanese lawyer, actually chairman of the “Association of Macanese Communities”. He closed the newspaper, fired all journalists (the two of us that worked there) in a way that was a example of one of the most cowardly attitude (and lowest baseness of character) I ever met in my life: he gave orders to change the locks of the newspaper’s office so, when I went there, on a Sunday afternoon, to prepare next day edition, my key didn’t worked. I phoned him to tell that there was a problem with the lock and I had to call somebody to fix it. He told me he decided to close the newspaper, for “restructuring it” and we were all fired. Two months after this, he was one of the five members of the Legislative Assembly (the local mitigated version of a Parliament) appointed by the Governor.

José Manuel Rodrigues, former owner of "Gazeta Macaense" and chairman of the "Association of Macanese Communities"
From 1993 to 1997, my family in Macau (my wife, my brother and my sister-in-law, even my first ex-wife…) were harassed and indirectly threatened, in an attempt to make me change the editorial line of the newspaper, first, and after to try to get me out of Macau. Because, even working as a freelance journalist, I was a source of problems for the General. Judge Farinha Ribeiras was a public admirer (he said that, on a interview to TDM, Macau TV) of Mussolini, Franco and Salazar, who supported controversial extraditions of suspects from Macau to China, where they could be sentenced to death and, since 1993, was the Judge-President of Macau Supreme Court (“chosed” and appointed by the General). In 1994, he filled 38 complains in Court against me, as Editor of the newspaper, for defamation. I was not alone, as he took “Amnesty International” to court, complaining also of being defamed by the organization, in 1994.

Mr. Ribeiras said, on that interview, among many other foolish and brainless things, that “Italians still missed the times of Mussolini, because trains use to run on schedule”. We made a comment, on the newspaper and reminded him that it was not Mussolini’s “virtue” but a demand from the Nazis, that wanted the trains destined to Treblinka, Auschwitz and other death camps to arrive on time. Mr. Farinha Ribeiras made a formal request to the Court to arrest me until I went on trial, to avoid that I run away from Macau. It was a bad idea, as both the “Committee to Protect the Journalists” and “Amnesty International” decided to act, on my defense, with this second organization warning authorities of Macau that if was was arrested, in that context, they would include me in their list of  “Prisoners of Conscience”.

Portuguese President Mário Soares (2nd from right), a former political prisoner during Salazar regime and the Judge-President of Macau Supreme Court, Farinha Ribeiras (1st from right) a public admirer of Salazar, siting side by side during a presidential visit to Macau.
The “Committee to Protect the Journalists” invited me  - a great honor, no doubt - to write the preface of their 1995 edition of the “Index of Censorship”, a book about censorship, country by country, all over the world. As a freelance journalist, I got some internal documents, in 1995, from TDM, the local Government owned TV station, with instructions to the journalists to ignore the demonstrations of pro-Democracy groups on the June 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen events. I published those internal documents and reactions, even in Portuguese Press, in Lisbon, were strong. In 1997, I was a little bit tired of being almost jobless for the two previous years, as my stories as a freelance journalist found less and less space, to be published, in Macau. The 24 square miles of Macau were, indeed, a very small area for me and the General to share. So, I decided to go back to Portugal, where I got a job, two months after arriving.

The second time I was threatened (and also has some "receio", but not "medo") was between 2003 and 2004, when I published several stories, after many months of investigation, about the activities of a fundamentalist Muslim group, the Tablighi Jamaat – a group nobody heard about, in Portugal, until then, and no newspaper had ever made any mention of their existence in our country – but was banned in Russia, in 2009, for example. I managed to explain to the readers of the weekly “O Independente” (the second biggest one, in Portugal, at the time) not only that they were here, but also the dimension, the vast network they had, all over the country, the fact that they controlled the majority of Muslim associations and communities, including the most important one, the “Islamic Community of Lisbon” (“Comunidade Islâmica de Lisboa”).

They did it always behind the curtain, behaving in a way that you can say was more secret than discreet. No one never saw any of their leaders in the front row of any public ceremony or situation where non-Muslims or journalists were present. Troubles (for me) really start when I published a photo of their “operational” leader, Mr. Esmael Loonat, a man that, at the time, was already in the “radar” of the Counter-Terrorism Unit of Polícia Judiciária.
I endured months of threats, even against my family in Macau, in phone calls that, for example, mentioned details like the name of my seven years old son, living in Macau with his mother, the exact place where his school was and who used to take him to and from school. My reply to those phone calls was always very short and I can’t reproduce it here.

Mr. Esmael Loonat, the "operacional" leader of the Tablighi Jamat in Portugal, in 2004
A few months after, the Tablighi Jamaat made a turnover in their “public relations” policy and decided to introduce themselves to the Portuguese people, trough several interviews with newspapers an TV stations, as a very humble, peaceful and simple Muslim organization, that just followed a little bit more strict interpretation of Quran, in their daily lives. Even the “operational leader” gave interviews to Media and allowed them to do something completely forbidden, a sin for the Tabligy Jamaat: taking photos of himself. Just to give you an idea, no Tablighi Jamaat family has a TV set at home, as it is considered a “source of conspurcation of Muslim ideals and principles” – a quote from “Al-Madinah”, a monthly magazine of the group, in Portuguese. With this change of policy, all threats against me (that including two bomb threats against the newspaper) just vanished.

From 2008 until last year, I lived in Macau, working as a journalist and also as a freelance translator English/Portuguese, specialized in Law and Legal Affairs. I came back to Portugal in March 2017, after my 23 years marriage finished, in a peaceful way and with a decision for a divorce by mutual agreement. I had to start (and I’m still in the beginning of it…) almost from the zero, in my work as a journalist and translator. I went to Macau in 1996, came back to Portugal in 1997, returned to Macau in 2008. So, for the last nine years, I was absent from the journalistic field, in Portugal. Many of the colleagues that used to run side by side with me, chasing politicians, tape recorder in hand, asking questions, years ago, are now Editors at newspapers, TV stations and radios.

Traditional Media in Portugal, mainly newspapers, are in a uncomfortable situation: they have one foot on the left side (paper editions) of a deep canyon and the other on the right side (online editions), their “legs” stretching, painfully and dangerously, more and more. Paper editions and its advertisement, with a few exceptions, don’t produce enough revenue to pay salaries and production costs. Online editions have only a residual revenue, that barely covers costs – and this is because they “cannibalize” paper editions and have just five or six workers, most of them in charge of the technical management of the sites.

More than a dozen newspapers closed, in Portugal, in the last 10 years. Others have reduced staff, in some cases, firing more than one third of the journalist working there. They fill the gaps by hiring dozens of young people, just out of university, “giving” them a six-months internship, as trainees, usually not paid, with only a small subsidy for meals and a free travel pass for public transports. After the six months, they tell them “thank you”, say goodbye and hire another group of trainees. I had many contacts with old friends, journalists, and all told me the same: nobody is hiring journalist so “expensive” as I am, due to my experience and CV. Cheap or even free of costs trainees are the only option authorized by the management of newspapers.

This new beginning, for me, at 60 years old, has not been easy. Freelance journalist, nowadays, in Portugal is a euphemism for “unemployed”, as the market for this kind of work is almost inexistent and payment is very low. Translations from English to Portuguese have been my main source of income, to make ends meet. Things have became more difficult, after the initial divorce by mutual agreement changed to a litigious one, more expensive than usual, as I had to get a lawyer and the case proceedings must go, in very slow steps (and time is money, for lawyers…) through a complex legal channel, between two distant and different judicial systems – Macau and Portugal.

As I mentioned in the tittle of this post, it would be about a couple of stories of my life as a journalist and something more – a few details about my personal life. I also have a request to make and that is very difficult and embarrassing for me. As I think you noticed, in the top of the right side column of my blogs, I have a “Donate” button, from PayPal and also the IBAN of my bank account. I just want to say that any help, doesn’t matter how small it is, from my readers, who consider that I have been doing a reasonable journalistic work covering the case of Maddie’s disappearance, will be really very welcomed.

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