From Balibo to Bangkok: Journalists Under Fire – The Irrawaddy

Journalists lie down and take cover during a gun battle between Thai army and anti-government protesters at Lumpini park in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Seven leaders of Thailand's Red Shirt protesters have surrendered to authorities after a deadly army assault on their fortified encampment. (AP Photo/ Manish Swarup)

BANGKOK—A couple of days before Italian journalist Fabio Polenghi was cremated at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, another ceremony took place in New Zealand in memory of Gary Cunningham.

Separated by thousands of miles and 35 years time, the two events have a common thread: both men were journalists killed while doing their job. Cunningham was killed in late 1975 alongside four other journalists by the invading Indonesian Army while reporting from Balibo, a dusty hillside border town in East Timor. Polenghi died in unclear circumstances last Wednesday while photographing the fighting between the Thai military and Redshirt protestors in central Bangkok.

Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban spoke about the Polenghi case to Italy’s ambassador to Thailand, but his comments were vague. According to translations carried on the Bangkok Pundit website, Suthep talked about “an M79 bullet.” He is also quoted as saying that the “M79 bullet” caused multiple casualties.

There is no such thing as an M79 bullet, and while an M79 grenade caused multiple injuries to soldiers and a Canadian journalist during a separate incident, multiple accounts of the Polenghi case say that he was killed while photographing the army advance from the Redshirt side, and that the cause of death was a high velocity bullet or bullets to the chest and/or stomach.

On the afternoon of May 19, a couple of hours after Polenghi had been shot, Redshirt militants fired grenades at advancing troops, severely injuring Canadian journalist Chandler Vandergrift. As the troops and protestors fought it out, a group of around 40 correspondents spent an hour trapped in a side alley while the news that Polenghi had died filtered through to the already-frightened group.

Meanwhile, amid flickering mobile phone signals, other journalists trapped in the main rally area at Rajaprasong reported that Redshirt militants had declared the media a target. Gunfire rained down from troops advancing on Rajaprasong, even on the so-called ‘safe haven’ at Wat Pathum Wanaram, five hundred meters from the protesters’ main stage. The few reporters trapped in the crowded Wat reported coming under heavy fire, with people struggling to take cover.

The street fighting between the Thai military and Redshirts in Bangkok during the week leading up to May 19 was without a doubt the most dangerous, unpredictable and unnerving situation this reporter has ever covered, including trips in recent years to Darfur, Haiti, Pakistani Kashmir, Somali regions in Ethiopia and northern Uganda, home of the elementally-barbaric Lord’s Resistance Army. For example, this reporter never felt in danger while interviewing members of the Janjaweed in Darfur, or while photographing in their vacinity.

The crackdown on May 19 in Bangkok was also not the first time that members of the media had fallen victim during the Redshirt protests.

On May 15, Canadian reporter Nelson Rand was shot three times while covering Redshirt clashes with the Thai military close the the US Embassy. During the clashes on April 10, Hiroyuki Muramoto, a Japanese cameraman working for the Reuters news agency, was fatally shot, and the results of the official investigation into his death have still not been released.

A France 24 cameraman was also injured on April 10, and various Thai media personnel have sustained injuries and been threatened by protestors. It is unclear whether the May 13 shooting of Seh Daeng, the Redshirt-aligned general who was being interviewed by journalists when the fatal bullet struck him, was part of the targeting of—or attempts to intimidate—journalists.

Reporters Without Borders has heavily criticized the Thai Government and redshirts for apparently targetting the media, which is in contravention of international law.

Since the Redshirt protest began on March 12, 85 people have been reported killed and 1,898 injured. Thai and international rights groups are calling for an independent investigation into the events.

Meanwhile, after 35 years the Indonesian Government continues to deny that the military shot the five journalists at Balibo. The Australian police have now launched a war crimes investigation into the deaths, following years of accusations that Canberra was complicit in a cover-up, with Australian officials keeping silent due to fears of causing a rift with Jakarta.

The police investigation is based on a 2007 coroner’s report, which concluded that Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart were shot or stabbed as they tried to surrender to the Indonesian-led troops who stormed the border town on 16 October 1975.

According to the coroner, in an attempt to portray the journalists as combatants killed in a mortar attack, the men’s bodies were dressed in military uniforms and photographed with guns before being incinerated.

To be conclusive, the investigation will require co-operation from the Australian police counterparts in Jakarta, and this is unlikely as the Indonesian Government regards the Balibo case as closed.

The story of the five journalists was made into a feature film, Balibo, which premiered in late 2009 and had current East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta, back then a young PR flack for the Timorese independence movement, as a central figure.

As a young journalist, Tony Maniaty, who now teaches journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney, reported from Balibo just days before the journalists were killed. He is the author of Shooting Balibo, a book about both his own experiences in Balibo in 1975 and his return to Balibo as a consultant to the movie.

Speaking at the time the movie was released in Australia, he said that war reporting today is a much more dangerous business than in 1975, and for this reason it is important that the Balibo story is told.

“Although the insurgents, terrorists and government forces can kidnap and kill reporters with impunity, the Balibo story can help raise awareness of journalist’s rights and responsibilities in warzones,” Maniaty said.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |

Follow us on Twitter
, , , ,