Bangkok Post rebuts CJR falsehoods

Bangkok Post rebuts CJR falsehoods

The following statement has been released by <i>Bangkok Post</i> editor Pichai Chuensuksawadi after communicating with the Columbia Journalism Review over a libellous and incorrect article it recently published. This is the statement.

A preliminary statement on this matter was posted on Thursday.

In recent days the Bangkok Post has been subjected to criticism and scrutiny following an article published online by the US Columbia Journalism Review written by a former employee, American Justin Heifetz.

Heifetz's article touches on his eight months at the Sunday edition of the Bangkok Post from 2013 to 2014 during which he was employed in the dual roles of copy editor and writer. Heifetz, 28, presents himself as a courageous reporter battling the military and under constant threat, while failing to get support from unsympathetic editors and management. He thematically argues that this constant stress and harassment led to his "trauma" and flight from Bangkok.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The opening of the video Heifetz refers to. The full video link is provided below.

While Heifetz's article draws on some real experiences at the newspaper, he has distorted those experiences into a fanciful narrative to suit an unknown personal agenda.

The CJR went ahead and published this article without any regard for what the Bangkok Post considers a highly defamatory and inaccurate article. Since publication by the CJR, the Bangkok Post has sent a point-by-point rebuttal of Heifetz's falsehoods, distortions and fabrications and demanded a retraction and apology to the editors of the CJR. Yet the article remains on the CJR website, and the factual errors and falsehoods are unchanged.

Due to the intransigence of the CJR and Heifetz's gross falsehoods remaining in the public domain, the Bangkok Post has taken the decision to publish its rebuttal to the article.

As a part of this response, some clear facts need to be established about Heifetz. After brief stints working with the Myanmar Times and the Phnom Penh Post, Heifetz joined the Bangkok Post in Aug 2013 and left without notice in April 2014. Heifetz gave no reason for his abrupt departure and simply emailed his editor saying he was ill and had to go home. In the weeks preceding his departure he had complained of not getting enough sleep and was offered the opportunity to take an immediate vacation, which he declined.

His account states that he was traumatised by what he says was his "abandonment" by his editors. And yet this contradicts the tone Heifetz took when he notified his editors in April 2014 that he was resigning for "health problems".

"Thank you kindly for all the opportunities the Post has provided to me, and all of the invaluable lessons I have learned at my time here working under experienced, diligent and knowledgeable editors," Heifetz said at the time.

At what point "invaluable lessons" morphed into "abandonment" for Heifetz is a mystery.

Heifetz was never the serious or prolific reporter he portrays himself at the Bangkok Post Sunday. He produced just over 25 articles during his employment, only a handful related to politics/security. The majority of his published work consisted of routine stories and entertainment pieces. He did not speak or read Thai and had only a rudimentary knowledge of Thai politics and culture. Despite giving the impression he was out on the streets during the PDRC rallies amidst the "bombs and gunfire", for the most of the time he was sitting in an air-conditioned office in Klong Toey working as a production journalist.

He was never sued or threatened with a suit by Rear Admiral Panu Punyavirocha, nor was he told to apologise. In fact, Heifetz did not speak to the admiral, but rather it was his editor who did so.

Even Heifetz's melodramatic account of shooting a pig carcass and the "trauma" associated with it is false. At no stage did he shoot a lump of pork prised inside a bulletproof vest for the purpose of proving the vest's efficacy. This was done by a shooter at a shooting range as Heifetz says himself in his article ("Testing shoots down effectiveness of X-ray vests, 12 Jan 2014) and shown in the video below.

Heifetz's perceived conflict with the Post's military correspondent, Wassana Nanuam, is a fabrication. She has never spoken, exchanged correspondence or even met with Heifetz.

While the Bangkok Post welcomes criticism and scrutiny to improve its performance it only does so when it is based on facts, not fallacies and falsehoods.

Heifetz's article: 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.

While Heifetz was given this assignment, he never covered the Bangkok street protests nor was he ever given a story assignment in which he may have been placed in a position of personal risk. This was due to his inexperience, his inability to speak Thai and the fact that his primary responsibility at the time was not as a reporter, but as a production journalist. He published two articles related to the political unrest, one on 8 Dec 13, where he conducted phone and email interviews with analysts about how the government was containing the protests, and another on 12 Jan 14, where he was asked to do a feature about makeshift vests being purchased by the protesters.

Heifetz: 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.

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.

Heifetz was employed by the Bangkok Post as a sub-editor/reporter working for the newspaper's Sunday team. At no time did he suggest that he was uncomfortable working as a news reporter.

Heifetz: 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.

I didn't want to shoot a slaughtered animal, but I had no choice. I was the only foreign reporter employed by the Post, and there was no room to complain. My role was special, and I didn't want to risk losing it. 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.

With regards to shooting a slaughtered animal, and the claim that he didn't want to do it, the original proposal by Sunday editor Paul Ruffini was to conduct tests of the vests using a dummy. Heifetz took it upon himself to purchase pork meat from an open market, arguing that shooting the flesh would be the best analogy to human flesh based upon his research into ballistics. Upon returning to the office, he was excited and effusive about the test results. At no time did he indicate any reservations about the story nor was he forced or directed. Heifetz did not actually shoot the meat, but only witnessed the event with the actual test performed by a professional shooter.

Heifetz: The Post is the largest circulating English-language daily in Southeast Asia. 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.

The Bangkok Post currently employs 179 journalists, including reporters, rewriters, editors, sub-editors, photographers and designers. Twenty-nine journalists are foreign nationals working as sub-editors and print and digital news editors. The reason why the Bangkok Post does not employ foreign journalists as staff reporters is primarily due to language barriers, as it is difficult for reporters who don't speak or read Thai to correspond with sources, analyse original source material or keep abreast with local news trends. However, many foreign staff are encouraged and do write for the newspaper's news, oped, sports, business and features sections. Heifetz's characterisation that he was unique among the staff is false.

The claim that the Bangkok Post would employ a foreign reporter for the express view of "drumming up expat readership" is false. Currently more than half of total readership are Thai nationals.

Heifetz: And there's another wrinkle. Thai law prohibits local media outlets from hiring 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.

There is no prohibition against the employment of foreign journalists under Thai law. As part of its recruitment process, The Bangkok Post will coordinate with the Foreign Ministry and other agencies to ensure that a proper media visa and work permit are secured before employment begins. Heifetz's claim that all foreign nationals at the Post are copy editors is also false – his own supervisor, Sunday editor Paul Ruffini, is an Australian national.

Heifetz: 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.

The statement that Heifetz's reporting for the Post violated the law is false. With regards to the suggestion that the newspaper would not protect or defend its staff, since 2007, the Bangkok Post and its journalists have been sued three times for defamation, involving five staff journalists, including the editor. In each case, the charges have been dismissed, with legal representation provided by the company.

Heifetz: 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.

This was serious: all defamation charges in Thailand are criminal. 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.

Heifetz's original story failed to state that he had not actually interviewed Rear Admiral Panu Punyavirocha, but that instead he had reprinted quotes from an earlier story in the Bangkok Post by Wassana Nanuam.

Rear Admiral Panu contacted Wassana about Heifetz's story when it was published on 9 Feb 2014.

Wassana told the admiral that she did not write or contribute to the Sunday story, and she subsequently contacted Atiya Achakulwisut, the Bangkok Post deputy editor. Atiya in turn notified Heifetz and Sunday editor Paul Ruffini that the admiral had a query about the story.

Heifetz refused to contact Admiral Panu, who instead spoke with Ruffini about the story. No lawsuit was threatened against either the Bangkok Post or Heifetz. Deputy editor Atiya also denies having directed or "forced" Heifetz to apologise – she states that she only said it was polite to return a call if a mentioned source has a question about a story. At no time did Wassana or the Bangkok Post retract the original story quoting Rear Admiral Panu as stated by Heifetz.

Heifetz: 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.

Wassana states that during Heifetz's time at the Bangkok Post, they had never met nor communicated. On 8 Nov 2013, she published a story stating that Cambodia had been sending troop reinforcements to the border, days before the International Court of Justice was to rule on the disposition of the Preah Vihear temple dispute. (Army claims Cambodia stationing extra troops.) Heifetz's own story regarding Preah Vihear was published two days later, and indeed built upon elements of Wassana's earlier reporting.

Heifetz: 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.

Heifetz sent an email seeking comments for an article to Chiratas on April 9. In his reply on April 10, Chiratas asked Heifetz to expand on the nature of the article as well as the intended publication before formally addressing his questions. Heifetz declined to answer where or when the article would be published. Ultimately, The Bangkok Post was not given the opportunity to formally address Heifetz's questions before the article was posted. Wassana states that at no time did Heifetz contact her for comment for the story. (CJR posted the piece on April 15).

Heifetz: 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.

Jetjaras Na Ranong, the Bangkok Post photographer who accompanied Heifetz to the shooting range for the story, states that at no point did Heifetz fire a weapon. In the video, only the source is seen shooting at the vest.

In the original story (Testing shoots down effectiveness of X-ray vests) Heifetz writes that the shooter was Somchai Cherdchai, the owner of the gun range used for the test. The target used was a plastic bag containing pork meat. No blood was present.

Heifetz: 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.

In May 2014, the Bangkok Post published editorials against the coup on three separate occasions:

Coup is not the solution, Walking a tightrope, and Coup offers no solution.

Since then, the newspaper has carried numerous articles covering human rights abuses, policy missteps, dissident views and concerns about the current government as voiced by academics, political, business and social leaders and the international community.

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