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When journalism and ethics cross paths
BY VIET PHUONG
(TN-BANGKOK) No journalist can avoid questions about ethics in their line of work. I am no exception. I thought I had all the answers until my little sister asked me a tough question that’s been bothering me ever since.
We’d had these kinds of discussions before. “If you were reporting in a disaster area, would you save someone in danger, or let them die to take their picture?” she’d ask. “That’s easy, of course I’d save them,” I’d confidently respond. But this time she asked me, “What about a protestor? What if someone was trying to burn himself? Would you stop him?” At that moment, I could find no response for her. It made me think of an experience where the very thing she spoke of happened to me. I was standing at the Democracy Monument in downtown Bangkok. It was a few days before the referendum on the new Thai constitution that was held last August. The leader of a group of protestors against the junta-backed constitution planned to create a media event by slashing his arm in front of a crowd at this very public monument.
Anti-riot police were deployed to stop him and control the crowd. I overheard a police officer angrily mutter, “He doesn’t have to cut himself like that. If he wants to commit suicide, I’ll lend him my gun!” The man climbed on top of a van parked in front of the monument and proceeded to slash his arm with a razor. The cut was deep. We could see the white bone inside as blood poured down his arm. Predictably, journalists started taking photos like mad. I was among them. Soon, the man started to get dizzy. The reporters didn’t want to stop taking pictures. Neither did I. As a protestor tried to bandage his arm, a journalist cried out, “Wait! Let us take a few more photos!” The man was only able to stand for another minute before he had to be rushed to the hospital. Is it ethical to encourage a man who’s almost collapsed from loss of blood to not go to the hospital so the press can document it?
I didn’t have a concrete answer for my sister. “It depends,” I told her. In the end, these are issues I will probably always struggle with as a journalist. But that doesn’t mean I won’t stop searching for the answer.