This weekend, I – like many – was glued to my screen to watch the latest developments coming from within the walls of the White House. Who does the president think the likely GOP candidate is going to be for the 2016 election? How could the secretary of state broker some level of peace between Palestine and Israel? And what chic outfit was the First Lady going to wear next?
Thankfully, we’re not yet at the stage where the White House has to open its doors to Kardashian-style reality television. My insight into all of this was of course only fictional as the third season of the Netflix-produced series House of Cards finally kicked off here in Hong Kong on Saturday.
Now, I promise not to give away anything crucial about the plot of the first few episodes. One thing I will tell you is that the first big state visit that the Macbeth-like fictional president, Frank Underwood, receives is from the leader of Russia. In the show, his name is Victor Petrov. And it’s not just the character’s initials that bear similarity to the real-life president of the Russian Federation. Socially gruff, high-cheekboned and unwilling to compromise, the House of Cards’ writers did little to mask their commentary on Vladimir Putin.
Of course, this show was likely filmed and written months ago and it would have been impossible to know that many watching it would be doing so on the same weekend that thousands marched through the streets of Moscow to pay their respects to Boris Nemtsov—the Russian opposition leader murdered just metres from the Kremlin on Friday night. But the crackdown by Putin’s – or should I say Petrov’s – government on free speech and opposition was not ignored in the show. Starring alongside the fictional Russian president were members of the real-life band Pussy Riot, who made cameo appearances to protest their nation’s dramatised leader.
A few weeks ago, Reporters without Borders released their annual World Press Freedom Index, which showed that media freedom across the globe had taken a serious tumble. In Russia, they report that no fewer than 29 journalists have been murdered due to their work since Putin came to power. The murders at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo during a morning editorial meeting in January has left irreversible scars on French society and the Israeli Defence Force seems able to regularly persecute Palestinian journalists without repercussion.
Here in Hong Kong, we saw violent attacks on journalists last year as well the imposition of increased government control on information – a result of Beijing’s reach no doubt. Even the fictional depiction of Washington politics described earlier was doctored. Bought from a Singapore channel, those watching House of Cards in Hong Kong were seeing a censored version of the show. As a city state famous for its film and media control, swear words and even the smallest suggestion of upper thigh were bleeped or blotted out on screen. I may have missed even more controversial parts of the show, but of course I wouldn’t know. However, what wasn’t lost was the irony of watching a piece of film commenting on freedom of speech and the media that had already gone under the censor’s knife.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.