When I was assigned the plagiarism story, the Sunday editor, an Australian named Paul, told me it would be “a good yarn”—the irony, the absurdity, the organic asparagus. He gave me Wyn Ellis’s phone number. I met Ellis at a mall. He is a precise, meticulous man who arrived with a stack of binders containing hundreds of pages—in correspondence, timelines, color-coded charts, annotated thesis reproductions—he had compiled as evidence of the plagiarism and related malfeasance. He had made the plagiarism allegations against the official several years ago, and seen official investigations into the matter blocked ever since.
He struck me as honest, but also a bit crazy for the seriousness of his pursuit. He was particularly worked up over the lack of academic merit of the dissertation. “It’s completely unilluminating!” he’d say. “There’s nothing groundbreaking about the promotion of organic asparagus!” The dissertation was also, for all but fourteen of the 161 pages, cut and copied from four documents, three of which Ellis had been the principal author of, and one that a graduate student, with funding from the plagiarist’s agency, had researched.
The author of the dissertation was a man named Supachai. He was director of the National Innovation Agency. He had completed the dissertation for a Ph.D. program at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s esteemed royal university, under the tutelage of an adviser named Wichai who had received NIA funding for a much-disputed herbal product that he claims enhances breast growth.
Supachai declined my requests to interview him for the story, but we corresponded via e-mail about the allegations. His main defense was that he owned the intellectual property rights to these documents (not true) and so it was impossible to plagiarize them.
Even before reporting the story, I was aware of Supachai’s litigiousness—he had previously sued Ellis for defamation, and Ellis had countersued. Ronnachai, the Post lawyer, reviewed the documents to ensure we were not in violation of the court by writing about the case. Once the story was written, at least three editors approved it, and Ronnachai reviewed it again. The piece was finally published on June 6, 2009.
A couple of weeks after the story ran, I received an e-mail from Supachai informing me that he would be taking legal action. In October, I received a police summons, as did Pattnapong, the editor-in-chief, to report to Nakohn Pathom, a province several hours outside Bangkok—a strategically inconvenient and off-the-radar jurisdiction.
At the time, I wasn’t particularly worried. Defamation cases are not uncommon in Thailand, and my story was solid. While the possible consequences were a fine of two hundred thousand Thai baht (about $6,700) and/or a several-year jail sentence, even in the event that we were found guilty, the fine would have been paid by the Post and everyone assured me jail was highly unlikely. It also was reassuring to me that Pattnapong was a co-defendant—the Post would certainly use their best resources to defend him, and by extension, me.
But then we spent the day in jail and, according to Ronnachai, I was placed on a travel “blacklist.” This meant I had to request permission from the court to leave Thailand, which Ronnachai assured me the court would grant. Neither he nor anyone else was able to tell me more about the list, whether it really existed, in a computer system at the airport or anywhere else. A couple of months after the day in jail, I requested permission to travel to Singapore to visit a friend. My request was denied. I appealed the decision twice, and it was denied twice, apparently because I was a flight risk. Only when my editors agreed to assign me a “story” in Singapore was I allowed to make the weekend trip.