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American Journalism Review
Journalism for the Brave  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 1996

Journalism for the Brave   

By Stacy Lu
Stacy Lu is a freelance writer based in New York.     

Xinyue Lou looks over his shoulder and lowers his voice before speaking to a reporter about the dangers of practicing journalism in New York's Chinatown.

He is sitting in a crowded tea shop in Chinatown, sipping Tetley with heavy cream. Several feet away a group of elderly Chinese men chatter in Cantonese, slurping noodles. They look harmless, but in Chinatown, Lou wouldn't want to be heard by the wrong people.

Chinatown is a hotbed of controversies. Here there are petty rifts, big bosses and secret informers. And in the middle of these groups, often controlled or owned by them, is the Chinatown press.

Reporters in the ethnic press like Lou, who writes for the Chinese-language daily World Journal, have to be careful to stay on the right side of things. Some have paid the price of being bold, with penalties ranging from being fired or blackballed to being beaten up or killed (see Free Press, November 1993). Immigrants bringing their customs with them do not always allow for the American ideal of unfettered speech, and as a result, political, historical, social or criminal barriers often prevent immigrant journalists from telling the truth.

Violence is the most extreme deterrent to accurate reporting, and statistics prove that the fear of being targeted is valid. Ten journalists have been killed in the United States since 1981, all of them immigrants working in their native language, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The chilling results have been dramatic. Coverage of the drug trade in Spanish-language papers, for just one example, has all but ceased since Cuban-American journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue was killed in New York City in 1992 by drug traffickers.

But for all the drama, many of the violations against the ethnic press go unreported in the mainstream press. When Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic was killed in 1976 while reporting on fraudulent land deals, the press community swarmed to pursue his investigation. But of the 10 immigrant journalists killed in the past 15 years in the U.S., only two of the cases have been solved and few have been publicized, according to CPJ.

Still struggling with the concept of democracy, Haitian communities in the United States are microcosms of the problem, with dissonant Haitian voices frequently silenced. Between 1991 and 1994, three Haitian radio hosts, all of whom were vocal supporters of then-exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, were fatally shot in Miami's "Little Haiti," allegedly on the order of supporters of the Haitian military.

Staffers of the Observateur, a Brooklyn-based Haitian weekly, were harassed for years as a result of the paper's anti-Aristide stance. Meanwhile, Observateur reporters in Haiti received vague threats from anonymous callers, and so many people were scared out of delivering the paper that the business manager began delivering it himself.

In Chinatown, members of the ethnic press must answer to the community's powerful associations. Almost all advertisers are local businesses and can effectively boycott a paper, especially when they form alliances such as the Chinatown Restaurant Owners' Association. Such alliances, along with various family associations known as "tongs," make coverage of local issues such as labor violations difficult and sometimes dangerous. One tong has been linked to organized crime, and most local business leaders are tong members.

Threats are why most sources are kept anonymous in the ethnic press. But unlike in the mainstream press, secrecy is in the interest of the reporter's safety, not the source's. "I've heard reporters saying to editors, 'Maybe I shouldn't mention his name.' But sometimes editors say you have to mention the name," says Justin Yu, another World Journal reporter.

But Yu says seasoned reporters in Chinatown, believing such risks are not worth the consequences that might follow, have learned how to deal with such security conflicts. If an editor insists on naming the source, the reporter is apt to reply, "You go ahead and report the news then."



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