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The Hong Kong reporter who stayed calm in war-torn Libya

Reporter: Margaret Ng Yee-man

Journalists usually report on a story instead of being the centre of the story themselves. But that is exactly where Matthew Sze Ho-wai found himself earlier this year.

Sze, 34, was one of four Hong Kong frontline journalists who were trapped in a Tripoli hotel by forces loyal to the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in August.

Sze wears a neat black suit and looks relaxed as he talks to Varsity in a in a café. It is hard to imagine that several months ago, he was dining in a flak jacket with a helmet by his side.

Sze was born and educated in Hong Kong. He graduated with a degree in cognitive science from Hong Kong University in 1999. After that, he started his first job as a spot news reporter for the Oriental Daily. He relates his decision to become a reporter to his active personality: “It is because I like to run around instead of staying in an office.”

He did not run around for long as he later transferred to the foreign desk where he translated foreign news stories from wire copy.

Sze spent a total of five years in newspapers before he switched careers to work as a district councillor’s assistant. But after a year, he decided to return to his first love, journalism. He joined ATV as a television reporter for three years but was unfortunately forced to leave his job when the company laid off more than 200 staff in 2009. This, however, opened the gateway for Sze to work for the mainland media.

He started working for Shenzhen TV when it opened its branch in Hong Kong. After that, he was approached by the national TV broadcaster and joined the first group of Hong Kong journalists to work for CCTV in 2010.

The fact that Hong Kong SAR passport holders enjoy visa-free access to many countries is a big incentive for CCTV to recruit Hong Kong staff, but Sze believes there is more to Hong Kong journalists’ competitiveness.

“We know our regional and neighbouring areas better,” he says, adding that the mainland media have long been restricted in the way they report the news. Hong Kong reporters, who have more access and exposure to foreign news, can provide different views and angles on issues.

People may think a Chinese news organisation would limit a reporter’s freedom but Sze thinks the contrary, at least as far as his work is concerned. “There isn’t much difference in terms of freedom, not for international news.”

It is precisely the opportunity to report on big international news stories that attracted him to CCTV. The broadcaster has ambitions to cover more global stories like the BBC and CNN .

While foreign news organisations are closing down foreign bureaus to cut costs, CCTV is expanding its global reach with bureaus in Africa, Latin America, Russia, and Europe. There are plans to have 56 bureaus by 2013.

Sze started his job with CCTV in October 2010. In less than a year, he had already travelled across the Asia Pacific area, reporting stories ranging from the new year celebrations in Singapore, the earthquake in Japan, floods in Australia and South Africa to the Chinese officials’ visits to Mongolia and the conflict in Libya.

CCTV offers training to international news reporters before they start their work. “I attended training in Beijing for a month along with other colleagues to practise reporting skills, how to handle emergencies and knowledge of first aid,” he says.

“News always comes in suddenly,” he says. “There are many qualities in a journalist, but on top of all of them, you should be ready to set off any time.”

When he learnt he would be assigned to Libya, Sze had barely any time to prepare. He grabbed his flak jacket, satellite phones and cameras and got on the plane.

In Libya, the Gaddafi government made all foreign journalists stay in a designated hotel. It arranged all the trips and press conferences. Journalists needed to get permission from the government if they wanted to work on their own story idea.

Despite the restrictions on his reporting, Sze did not sense any signs of danger on his first trip to Libya this year. He expected his second trip would be the same.

“There was no real cross-fire on the street. Everything seemed to be so peaceful until anti-Gaddafi forces rapidly advanced through the capital in the last few days of our visit,” he recalls.

Danger came on the night of August 21. All Muammar Gaddafi’s officials and hotel staff left the Rixos hotel without telling the journalists. A remaining four to five gunmen loyal to Gaddafi roamed the hallways and restricted the movement of Sze and other journalists from international news organisations, including Phoenix TV, the BBC, CNN and Reuters.

They were trapped inside the hotel and were forced to stand clear of any windows because of stray bullets. The situation got worse when their water and electricity supplies were intermittently cut.

But Sze and the others still tried to carry on with their usual reporting. They filed stories about life in the hotel and how the journalists prepared for the rescue.

“It was really a special situation. I was a reporter, but I was also the centre of the news. But as a reporter, I deem that even if I am scared and worried, I cannot put my own feelings and personal appeals into the broadcast news,” Sze says.

He upheld the professionalism he had long practised as a journalist even though it was life-and-death situation.

“It was hard to sleep as the sound of gunfire and explosions echoed across the city. We felt so tense and tired. However, it was a crucial time to help and encourage one another.” Sze adds.

The journalists agreed to stay together in a corridor because they felt it would be safer there. Some of them cooked steak and French fries, which was the food left in the basement of the restaurant. Some of them watched movies on their computers. They hoped to relieve the tension and keep each other cheerful.

As the days went by, however, the apprehension and nervousness mounted in the hotel. “There was this moment, like a movie plot. A woman rushed into the hotel and cried out about the anti-Gaddafi forces starting the killing outside. All the reporters’ hearts sank,” Sze reminisced. “Some journalists started to cry and some recorded farewell videos to their families.”

“You could not predict what would happen in the next second. You never knew whether the anti-Gaddafi forces or the gunmen in the hotel would do anything. You just didn’t know.”

As Sze recounts those moments, his voice is surprisingly calm and detached. It sounds as if he is telling the tale of others.

Luckily, temporary stability might have come about because of pressure from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. They urged Gaddafi loyalists as well as the rebel forces to keep the trapped journalists safe.

On the fifth day, two foreign journalists successfully persuaded the gunmen to put down their guns and let all the journalists leave the hotel to get into Red Cross vehicles.

Sze went back to Beijing for a duty report to supervisors. Then he flew back to Hong Kong in early September for a two-week holiday, during which he could enjoy time with his family.

During the hostage incident, Sze phoned his family back home, but did not want to make them worry. He just kept telling them: “I am fine.”

The experience has made Sze treasure his family more. “I will consider my family more and spend more leisure time with them,” he says.

Sze is grateful to his parents for respecting his choice to be a frontline reporter and also thankful to his fiancée. She is a former journalist who shares his values and supports his work.

Although many people might suffer from trauma after similar ordeal, Sze says he did not suffer any emotional distress afterwards. “I’m not the kind of person who experiences dramatic changes in my emotional state,” he explains.

His appetite for reporting from the frontline has not been blunted, although he is now more aware of the dangers and will think more before he acts. Even though he knows how intriguing and eye-catching news and images of war can be, he also knows he should not take risks. “A journalist is not a soldier. No news is worth a life.”

The experience in Libya has not scared him away but made him more determined to be a good international correspondent who may encounter danger on the job.

This determination may come from more than just a desire and tendency to “run around” as Sze puts it. It also comes from a passion to pursue the truth that can overcome his fears and worries.

He remembers it was the events of September 11, 2001 that kindled his interest in reporting frontline international news. He was working on the foreign desk at the Oriental Daily, translating the news from the wire agencies.

“I didn’t even remember to rest. I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the news even though I was not carrying out my duty at the scene,” he says.

Although the events of the day faded from his mind, they never stopped influencing him.

Sze’s Libya assignment is over for now. But he is ready to don the flak jacket and helmet again any time. He is as determined as he was 10 years ago, because this is the job he loves.

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