Portugal offers journalists safe haven amid media storm
On Nov. 21, Portuguese national daily Publico published a series of articles by and about six past and present FCCJ members. Sixteen inside pages were devoted to the opinions and careers of the antigos correspondentes de Toquio, all but one of whom had taken part in an eight-day grand tour of Portugal in the latter part of September. (Bill Emmott, the sixth correspondente, not quite as antigo as the others, joined the movable feast midstream.) Although the trip was first conceived as a get-together of former FCCJ colleagues to celebrate the 60th birthday of Philippe Ries, AFP’s former Tokyo bureau chief, who now spends part of each year tending an olive farm in central Portugal, his wife Adelia saw to it that the tour would serve to educate her husband’s friends about the culture, history and society of her country.
Publico’s special on the FCCJ veterans, complete with a full-page color photograph taken at a flattering upward angle, marked the culmination of a year of preparation by Adelia. The itinerary included a stay at Lisbon’s Palacio Belmonte, a 15th-century nobleman’s house converted into a hotel described by Conde Naste Traveler as “one of the 21 coolest places to stay in the world,” a meal under the Norman arches of an ancient convent reborn as a spa, a sea excursion to the fortress-residence of former dictator Antonio Salazar, and a panoramic view from the highest lookout on the Torres Vedras, the network of recently restored fortifications built 200 years ago by Wellington to defend Lisbon from Napoleon’s armies.
As if this was not enough, there were tours to museums and stately residences, dinners hosted by local officials, and a four-course meal lasting as many hours in the courtyard restaurant of Lisbon’s Clube de Journalistas, where the visitors exchanged views with Portuguese colleagues on everything from a new law limiting press freedom in Portugal to the success of French Internet journal Mediapart in upsetting French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Ries contributes regularly on economic issues to Mediapart from his home near his olive grove. The other antigos correspondentes attending were John Harris (ex-CBS News Tokyo, later Miami and London), William Horsley (ex-BBC bureau chief in Tokyo, later Bonn and Berlin), Fernando Mezzetti (La Stampa Tokyo 1986-90 and earlier in Beijing and Moscow for Il Giornale), as well as Ries and this writer.
According to my Portuguese dictionary, one common meaning of antigo is “antique,” which at least in the case of this antigo correspondente is accurate. But the word also triggers thoughts of bons tempos antigos (better times in the past) when bylines mattered more than bottom lines at news organizations. Those times appear alive and well in Portugal in a number of ways. As the treatment given the six antique journalists by Publico amply shows, Portugal is a country where the media and its practitioners are still respected. The Iberian nation is often criticized for failing to function at the leading edge of change, but when such change means the taking over of newspapers by buyout artists who fire reporters to pursue short-term profits, perhaps it is better to be a bit behind the times.
Portuguese newspapers have not been totally unaffected by declining readership, but surprisingly enough the country has 112 papers, a dozen of which are distributed nationally. Moreover, two papers (including Publico) were founded in the past 20 years by journalists and remain solvent. That journalists are still influential in Portugal is amply evident in that the country’s political leaders are trying their best to punish them even when (or rather especially when) they write the truth. Earlier this year, weekly magazine Sol and its reporters received stiff fines for publishing material about a government attempt to buy a failing TV network with tax money. The network had been critical of the government. The journalists had run afoul of a new law pushed through parliament by the majority Socialist Party which made it illegal to disseminate information obtained through a judicial wiretap. Journalists without Borders condemned the case as judicial harassment.
But respect for journalists is also evident in Portugal in more positive ways. At the dinner at Lisbon’s Clube de Journalistas, diners at distant tables in the restaurant’s inner garden cast furtive glances in the direction of TV news anchor Jose Rodrigues dos Santos, who joined the Tokyo group after a broadcast. Dos Santos carries on the European tradition of journalists as writers of literature. He is the author of eight novels with combined sales of well over a million copies, an astonishing feat in a country of 10 million people, some 15 percent of whom are illiterate. Joaquim Vieira, president of the Clube de Journalistas, who served as chief host of the Tokyo six, is no slouch either. Vieira’s name is on the cover of 21 books, including biographies of Salazar and fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.
By way of contrast, among the six antique foreign correspondents, the three who continue to write do so as successful independent authors (Emmott, Mezzetti and Ries). Harris and this writer have left full-time journalism, while Horsley works on behalf of journalists as international director of Sheffield University’s Center for Freedom of the Media. Horsley combines the role of writer and activist, contributing pieces to the BBC News website and other publications, while recording the sad state of press freedoms in countries such as Turkey, Georgia, the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in his capacity as media representative of the Association of European Journalists He was responsible last year for preparing a extensive report on threats to press freedom for the Council of Europe.
Emmott has been traveling a lot lately. After releasing Rivals on the rise of just about everyone in Asia except Japan, about which he spoke at an FCCJ Book Break, he traveled the length and breadth of Italy, in search of, as he put it La Buona Italia. The result has been Forza, Italia, a book which so far is available only in Italian but may soon be translated into Japanese. Emmott can be seen and heard talking about his book, which has met with very positive critical acclaim in Italy, on www.billemmott.com.
As for Mezzetti, his career since leaving Japan should dispel all doubts as to whether there is life after the FCCJ. His 600-page magnum opus, From Mao to Deng (one of six books he has published since leaving Tokyo), has been recently updated and reissued as From Mao to McDonald’s. He has been asked to testify in front of the Italian Senate on foreign affairs and is a much sought-after lecturer and commentator.
Ries is the only one of the three antique journalists not writing in Italian. He writes in French (but fortunately his writings are translated into both English and Japanese). His book on how Carlos Ghosn turned Nissan around has been recently reissued in paperback.
As for how each of the antigos correspondentes view Portugal, perhaps the most dramatic lead was provided by Mezzetti, who recalled an interview conducted by Indro Montanelli, his mentor at Il Giornale, with Salazar, the dictator who gave Portugal nearly half a century of stability but at a great price: isolation, backwardness and the lowest literacy rate in Western Europe. On leaving Salazar’s office after the interview, Montanelli was approached by one of the dictator’s aides, who told him: “Don’t be too hard on the man. He is struggling to save Portugal from its future.”
Isolation versus openness was the theme of Emmott’s contribution to Publico. As a long-time advocate of free markets, he predictably argued for the benefits of the latter option. Horsley wrote about Anglo-Portuguese relations, including the fact that at one time he could have opted for Portuguese citizenship, having been born in Macau.
Harris lamented the ignorance of most Americans about Portugal (and admitted that in 25 years as a CBS reporter and later producer, he had handled no story on the country). He also noted with no less sadness the unavailability of Portuguese wines at American supermarkets.
Ries, as a resident of Portugal, was the most critical of all the contributors: he wrote of the sad decline in the environment due to rapid and often unplanned development.
But while Portugal has not been able to escape environmental degradation, the sad state of its government finances and the small scale of its economy have probably saved the country from the kind of massive projects that might have destroyed its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Portugal’s failure to keep up with the times has spared travel writers having to sing the praises of Olympics and Disneylands. The one-time colonial power not only lacks the concentration of capital necessary for leveraged buyouts of newspapers, neither government nor business has the funds with which to ruin the landscape. The stone-paved roads leading to Wellington’s Torres Vedras have been excavated with archeological attention to detail; the Palacio Belmonte’s private investor has seen to it that his hotel is identified only by its large red gate but not with a huge neon sign; and on the square of Chiado, in front of the Café Brasileira, sitting on a wrought iron chair next to a table is the seated black metal figure of Fernando Pessoa, placed there by his admiring readers. One of the 20th century’s greatest poets and literary critics, Pessoa also contributed regularly to newspapers.
Portugal may not be in the best books of the financial industry today, but a country that celebrates journalists possesses values that cannot be undermined by a mere financial crisis. ❶
A former president of the FCCJ, Andrew Horvat has worked for the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and American Public Radio. He is the director of the Stanford Japan Center at Doshisha University.