Boys, don’t cry: New Hong Kong FCC anti-harassment policy has some members up in arms

The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. Photo via Flickr/Smuconlaw.
The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. Photo via Flickr/Smuconlaw.

In a purported defense of journalistic freedom more in line with Anchorman than The Post, a petition has been launched to “save” Hong Kong’s venerable Foreign Correspondent’s Club from a new anti-harassment policy.

How, one might reasonably ask, could such an august institution require saving from a policy designed to allow members to enjoy the bar area without “inappropriate touching,” “sexually suggestive remarks,” or “unwelcome questions” about sexual orientation?

Yet saving it needs, insists an anonymous group of members who have set up the melodramatically named, where they’re framing the new rules as a free speech issue and encouraging members to sign a petition asking that they be rescinded.

Helping get the word out are coasters that have been surreptitiously planted around the bar area – ones that Carlsberg might not be too happy about – asking members to sign the petition.

In a section of the site labeled “13 reasons to sign this petition,” the FCC is slammed for, among other things, not understanding “the basics of free speech” and contravening Article 27 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The site is peppered with liberal mentions of “the fraternity of journalists,” the “spirit of the FCC,” and clarion calls against the evils of “dictatorships.”

Not mentioned? The fact that the petitioners are comprised largely, if not entirely, of non-journalists, according to a member with knowledge of the matter. (Fun fact: the FCC draws much of its broader membership from the local business community.)

Given that former FCC President Victor Mallet only last year lost his Hong Kong visa on the cross of actual free speech issues, the petition’s tack hasn’t played particular well with journalist club members.

“If they spent half as much energy defending real free speech issues, the club would be better off. No one wants to stifle free speech, we just don’t want harassment in the club,” the member said.

Former club President Ilaria Maria Sala, who first brought the issue to public attention on Twitter, was quick to point out that her experience with the club has been meaningful and a largely happy one.

That said, she also said she’s taken to avoiding the main bar area, specifically because of its hostile atmosphere.

“The club is absolutely very welcoming and I love it. There are a few unpleasant people around the main bar who seem stuck in a particularly misogynistic colonial past,” she told Coconuts HK via private message.

“They also have some issues handling their drink. It isn’t a uniquely FCC problem, but at the FCC it feels particularly anachronistic.”

In a response to the growing brouhaha on social media, the FCC issued a follow-up statement today reiterating its stance on the policy — which emerged in the wake of three disciplinary cases in 2017 alone — and firmly knocked back the idea that the rules are about free speech.

“The FCC has a proven record of standing for free speech in Hong Kong, Asia and around the world. But free speech in the context of a private club does not give members license to talk to or treat others in a demeaning way. This policy is common courtesy and common sense.”

Detractors of the policy have pointed to its admittedly broad wording (after all, it technically bans profanity — what the fuck?), and have raised (possibly overblown) concerns that it could be weaponized by anyone with a personal grudge.

However, the even application of the code seems to hinge on one key element of its definition of harassment: i.e. any “unwelcome conduct, comment or display that is known or ought reasonably be known to offend, intimidate or humiliate the recipient.” (Our italics.)

In other words, in the sort of freewheeling debates that free speech is intended to foster (and that the people behind the petition maintain they are defending), certain lines may indeed be inadvertently crossed. However, among grown-ups, we should be able to “reasonably” discern between divisive opinions or provocative arguments that further a given conversation, and coarse insults that serve solely to “offend, intimidate or humiliate.”

And if a defense of free speech is indeed the goal, why not have an open debate, in public, on the merits of the policy, rather than anonymously circulate a petition calling for its blanket withdrawal?

After all, the door isn’t closed. In its recent statement, the FCC expressed its willingness to accept constructive feedback and to continue to change and “refine” the policy, as long as suggestions “serve the goal of eliminating harassment in the Club.”

In news that will shock absolutely no one, it also went on to say that most incidents of harassment have involved “excessive alcohol consumption.”

Ya don’t say.

So while a free and impassioned exchange of ideas is indeed one of the democratic values most dear to journalists, as one younger female member put it in the Twitter thread: “Alcoholism and bad manners isn’t free speech.”

We tend to agree.

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