Pork, bullets, and my rocky stint at the Bangkok Post

April 15, 2015

Editor’s Note: The Bangkok Post has issued a sharp critique of this story, disputing many of its assertions. As a result, CJR conducted a broad review of Justin Heifetz’s piece, a process that has involved conversations with more than a dozen journalists and legal experts in Thailand and elsewhere, as well as with Heifetz. We have determined that there are several errors of fact that require correction. In the opening anecdote, about testing bulletproof vests on a pig carcass, Heifetz wrote: “I didn’t want to shoot a slaughtered animal, but I had no choice.” Heifetz now says that shooting the pig was a decision he made, and that his editor did not force him. Heifetz wrote that the Bangkok Post is the “largest circulating English-language daily in Southeast Asia.” This is incorrect. Heifetz stated that “Thai law prohibits local media outlets from hiring non-national reporters.” There is no law categorically prohibiting foreigners from being hired as reporters (as opposed to editors), though in practice it’s rarely done. Additionally, Heifetz’s statement that “all defamation charges in Thailand are criminal” is incorrect. Thai law contains penalties for civil as well as criminal defamation, and any charge of defamation can be brought under either civil or criminal law, at the plaintiff’s option. In some cases, the facts are harder to judge. Heifetz wrote that he “clashed” with another Bangkok Post reporter, Wassana Nanuam. Heifetz now says that he and Wassana “never spoke nor saw each other.” His use of the word “clashed,” while misleading, reflects his view that there was tension between the two resulting from an incident in the newsroom.

This story was written in the first person, and represents Heifetz’s personal opinion and experience while he was an employee of the Bangkok Post. The events he describes are open to multiple interpretations, and it is not surprising that they have provoked strenuous disagreement. Before publication, Heifetz contacted the managing editor of the Bangkok Post, Chiratas Nivatpumin, seeking his response to many of the points that the Post has since disputed. Chiratas chose not to answer the specific claims in Heifetz’ piece, instead responding in an email that “the Post has a different recollection and perspective of the events in question,” which CJR included in the piece. Heifetz also suggested that Chiratas forward his request for comment to reporter Wassana Nanuam, for whom Heifetz said he lacked contact information. It is unclear whether that was ever done. In an attempt to emphasize that this piece represents Heifetz’s opinion, we have also changed the headline.

While CJR’s review did surface factual errors, none of them challenged the general thrust of Heifetz’s narrative or perspective on his time at the Bangkok Post.

On an unbearably hot afternoon in January 2014, my editor at the Bangkok Post told me to hit the streets and figure out why the masses downtown were suddenly donning homemade body armor.

For months, street protests had roiled the Thai capital, spurred by entrenched economic inequality and anger at an amnesty bill that would allow political exiles back into the country. As demonstrations became more violent after an attempt to shut down the city just before the New Year, protestors came up with their own means of self-defense.

They stitched up homemade bulletproof vests and distributed them in a free supply system, renting them in the morning and returning them at nightfall. The vests, though, were anything but bulletproof. They were made of cloth, stitched by women on the street, and instead of the standard metal or ceramic plates, they were stuffed with X-ray films stolen from hospital dumpsites. A crazed ex-paramilitary medical aide, a Thai-Indian named Anan Jandontri, had told the protesters that the X-rays would protect them. Many believed him.

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Even though I’d been in Southeast Asia for three years, having worked for the Phnom Penh Post and later the Myanmar Times, nothing scared me as much as the explosive protests against the Thai government. I had always been a business reporter. I moved to work in the Post’s Bangkok newsroom in August 2013 from Yangon, Myanmar, where I had been writing stories on telecoms towers and oilrigs. Now sulfur-tainted water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and even ultra-loud sonar machines crippling people’s balance had become part of my everyday life.

So I set out to explore how demonstrators were making these X-ray vests, and to dispel the myth that X-rays could work as body armor. My editor asked me to stage a demonstration to prove that the vests were useless. I’d have to find a dead pig, the closest match to a human, and bring it over to a shooting range in the suburbs. He quipped that I couldn’t tell my parents I’d be touching pork—I’m a middle-class Jewish boy from Boston.

My role was special, and I didn’t want to risk losing it. I felt there was no room to complain. While I was used to guns, gas, and oil—no business in Myanmar was good business—I’d finally been given the opportunity to report on breaking news, right in the middle of an incipient coup. No other Westerner in the newsroom was allowed this freedom.

The Post is a major English-language daily in Thailand. English-language papers throughout the region are supported by sizeable Western staffs; this can be a journalist’s ticket to a good job in the international media. Not every newspaper plays by the rules, though.

There is a systemic failure in the Thai media, and the Post exemplifies it. Journalists like me are only useful until we disrupt the cozy relationship between government and media. We’re used by senior editors to drum up expat readership in a country where paper hasn’t yet become obsolete—far from it. When we’ve exhausted our role, we’re discarded and replaced by carbon copies of ourselves before we became scared and jaded.

The Thai media model runs on local reporters—who make about $620 a month—and Western copy editors, who start at triple that salary, to turn their work into readable English for a large, mostly business-oriented expat audience. Newspapers like the Post rarely hire staff reporters because it’s not cost-effective. But having no Western bylines in a newspaper for Westerners is damaging to sales, so the Post relies on Western freelancers, intern reporters, and copy editors in their down time to contribute bylines.

And there’s another wrinkle. Thai law makes it difficult for local media outlets to hire non-national reporters. While the government rarely enforces this law, all foreign hands on deck must be copy editors. The Sunday section of the Post—the most generous section with investigative news and analysis—is allowed by upper management to take on one foreigner as a staff reporter at a time. I was this reporter.

Being the only non-national reporter in a newsroom like the Post’s is terrifying. It creates friction with Western copy editors who want bylines and invites animosity from Thai reporters covering the same scoops for a fraction of the salary. And upper management expects you to catch controversial stories, just like foreign correspondents for wires or big international media organizations. But you’re without any legal protection because you’re illegal. You’re disposable, expendable, a one-man team, and you’ll never forget it.

Before me, a young woman named Erika Fry had my position. She was charged with defamation and spent a day in jail in 2009 after reporting that a high-ranking government official had been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation about organic asparagus. Fry subsequently escaped back to America. She and I had the same section editor and worked under the same upper management; although our stints were five years apart, we both came under fire for stories the Western media would laugh at. We made the dangerous mistake of embarrassing government officials. It wasn’t long before I, too, drew the threat of a defamation suit.

In February, a month after I set out to debunk the promise of X-ray body armor, I reported on the opening of a new submarine base with no submarines. The piece was meant to be fun fluff: The Thai navy got ahead of itself, and opened the country’s first sub station at its naval base at Sattahip in Chon Buri, without procuring any submarines. Under the then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the military was very much an armed bureaucracy, and Yingluck, also the defense minister, kept it happy with some strange maneuvers.

The article wasn’t serious or hard-hitting enough to expose weaknesses in Thai national security, but criticism from experts and analysts made the navy look somewhat silly. I drew on an earlier piece that quoted a rear admiral interviewed by the Post’s military reporter—and also a public figure—Wassana Nanuam. My article contained quotes he had given her in that article, which had been published earlier, in October. He had told the newspaper that having a submarine base was a matter of territorial integrity.

When my article was published in February, the rear admiral was incensed. He called Wassana the next day. Apparently, this was the first time he’d read these quotations. When he asked Wassana why she had quoted him, Wassana simply denied that she had. Their interview had been on the record, but her refusal to acknowledge the quotes left me vulnerable. The rear admiral threatened to sue me for defamation.

The paper’s then-deputy editor forced me to apologize to the rear admiral by phone; when I asked her why, she said she didn’t have the time to read my article, and that it must be done. When I called the rear admiral with my section editor, the admiral said that I could never understand what I had done wrong, because I was a foreigner.

Wassana and I were not strangers. Just months earlier, we had both covered a historic ruling by the International Court of Justice, which had decided that the UNESCO temple Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia, not Thailand. For decades, tension over the borderland temple—which sits in a restive demilitarized zone—sparked violent battles between Thailand and Cambodia. Weeks before the ruling, in November 2013, it became clear that the Thai side had been ramping up its border patrol operations. Wassana, from the Thai side, wrote that the border patrols—both Thai and Cambodian—enjoyed lively games of soccer while the two governments pledged peace. Meanwhile, from Cambodia, I exposed a secret guard of 1,000 Cambodian soldiers, destitute and in plainclothes, living in fear of retaliation as they watched the Thai border patrol build up its bunkers. Wassana rolls with the country’s top brass, from TV appearances to all-expense-paid trips to Hawaii, and a foreign reporter made her lose face by exposing her story on the Thai side of Preah Vihear as a scam.

It wasn’t the last time that Wassana would face scrutiny for her reporting. A year later, last November, the newspaper ran an article under Wassana’s byline that purported to be an on-the-record interview with the ousted prime minister, Yingluck, the first since the coup. Wassana quoted Yingluck saying that “she saw the coup coming.” Soon after, Wassana admitted, via her Facebook page, that she had not interviewed the prime minister at all. The newspaper removed the article from its website, yet Wassana still writes for the Post.

I’d walked on eggshells ever since I clashed with Wassana after the submarine story was published in February. By the time the rear admiral threatened to sue me that same month, I worked and lived in crippling fear. I was forbidden by the paper’s editors from reporting on military affairs, or anything of major importance. At the same time, since December, I had been covering the story of Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, two small-time beach reporters in Phuket suddenly charged with defamation by the navy for citing 41 words from a previously published Reuters story. The Reuters article alleged that the navy trafficked the Rohingya—a persecuted Burmese minority—for forced labor on fishing boats as they crossed into southern Thailand from Myanmar. The Reuters reporters walked away scot-free and won a Pulitzer Prize just two days before Morison and Chutima reported for their first court date.

I became consumed with every detail of Morison and Chutima’s case. My editor urged me to take a vacation because I’d reported on too many high-trauma situations without a break. I couldn’t sleep, and suffered a breakdown brought on by the lack of resolution from the rear admiral who had threatened to sue me, even as I watched the navy crack down on Morison and Chutima. I walked into the office every morning with a crippling fear that today would be the day I’d have to report to court, and that the editors—who sided with Wassana, despite the insanity of her defense—would hang me out to dry. Instead of taking a break, I left for America in mid-April as the military coup approached, almost one year ago.

My editor argued that I wasn’t cut out for reporting on trauma. I think he’s wrong. The reporters’ enemy in Thailand—the real trauma—is abandonment by our editors, our very own media, when the going gets tough. The reporters from Reuters had the rare luxury of a legal defense. The rest of us had to face a final choice: fight or flight. And even flight is undoubtedly a luxury—one that Thai reporters often don’t have when they face defamation charges.

While writing this piece, I reached out to the Post’s managing editor, Chiratas Nivatpumin, to get his take on what had happened with Wassana and the rear admiral, and on my editors’ failure to come to my defense. Because I didn’t have contact information for Wassana, I asked Chiratas to pass my questions on to her.

Chiratas declined to address my questions directly. Instead, he wrote in an email: “Suffice to say that the Post has a different recollection and perspective of the events in question. I would also like to say that I believe we were extremely accommodating to you in many respects, starting from the beginning of your employment up to your abrupt departure. I am not sure I see how it would be to your benefit to criticize the paper publicly—you use the word ‘abandonment.’ Surely you know that if pressed, we would have to respond with own perspective on your work performance during your tenure with the Post.” His tone of menace reminded me of other interactions with management during my time at the paper. I received no response from Wassana.

That hot afternoon more than a year ago, I felt relieved to take a shot at some 22 pounds of pig wrapped in armor. It may have been bizarre; it may have been twisted, dirty, and broken. But shooting bullets at the range was the first and only time I had control over anything in Bangkok.

When I got back to the office—my jeans stained with pork blood and my ears ringing—I stood in the long hallway outside the double-glass doors to the newsroom. It was always silent there. Still holding pieces of shredded cloth and bundles of X-rays studded with freshly lodged bullets, I paused in front of a black and white portrait of the American officer who had founded the Post just after World War II. I thought he was handsome. I thought in another life, he could have been my grandfather—he had been from Boston, too.

His vision of the Bangkok Post as an independent news source is dead. The Thai media continues to avoid conversations about censorship while the government’s grip on it tightens. In Thailand, public records show that about 96 percent of defamation cases that go to trial end in convictions. Late on the evening of April 1, the general-turned-prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, overturned martial law to promulgate the even more draconian section 44 of the interim constitution, allowing him, in the name of the king, to issue any orders without judicial, legislative, or executive oversight. One consequence is that journalists could be subjected to secret detention and torture; Prayuth has also said he will probably execute journalists who don’t “report the truth.”

Fry wrote in 2011 that she was infuriated that nothing had changed. The government official who had plagiarized his dissertation kept his job, and the Post still pretended to stand by its reporters. All these years later, I watch with frustration as the words of the military regime are reported without a filter on the front page of the Post—and Morison and Chutima prepare, again, for court in July.

Justin Heifetz is a Beijing-based journalist and a 2011 graduate of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) in Hong Kong. Follow him at @JustinInBeijing.