Burmese rafters cross into Thailand on inner tubes along the Moie River between Mae Sot, Thailand, and Myawaddy, Myanmar (Burma).
Yesterday I wrote about the hazards faced by western journalists working in Libya and the Middle East. While those hazards are real, they’re nothing compared to the risks local journalists take in those countries every hour of every day.
Western journalists are somewhat protected by their status as foreigners. People at the New York Times started looking for their coworkers as soon as the four New York Times journalists went off the radar in Libya. The same thing when Joe Raedle and the two AFP journalists went missing. Calls were made to the Libyan foreign ministry and diplomats are notified, and wheels start turning. The seven disappeared under relatively public circumstances. No one came into their hotels in the middle of the night and snatched them.
Local journalists are not so lucky. When one of them disappears, it seldom makes headlines here. No one raises alarms about their missing colleagues. Foreign diplomats don’t get involved. Local journalists are routinely snatched from their homes or off the street after work.
Little of what we (foreign journalists) do would be possible without the help of local journalists. We frequently hire local journalists to work with us as translators and guides and local drivers to get us around the checkpoints and roadblocks. We call them “fixers.” Our work would be many times harder and considerably more dangerous without them.
Which brings me to the photo at the top of the page. I made the photo while in Mae Sot in 2008 working on story about Burmese refugees and immigrants in Thailand. An exiled Burmese newspaper editor in Bangkok arranged for me to work with one of her reporters in Mae Sot; he was my fixer.
We drove along the riverfront the first day we worked together and I saw people crossing on the rafts I asked him to stop but he wouldn’t. He kept saying it was too dangerous. So we motored on to some Burmese hangouts in Mae Sot. Several days later I went down to the river and photographed by myself for an hour or so, then I found a Thai Army patrol watching the border and photographed them for a bit.
Afterwards, in a small coffee bar in Bangkok, the editor asked me how things had gone. I told her everything was perfect except the reporter wouldn’t work along the riverbank with me. She asked if he had explained why and I said no, he just said it was too dangerous. Then she told me his backstory.
He had been a reporter in Burma (which I knew) and done a story (a as in one single story) critical of the regime. He was tried and sentenced to death, escaped and made his way to Thailand. But the Burmese government death warrant was still hanging over him. He was afraid that if Burmese agents, who watched the Thai side through binoculars, saw him they would either a) come across to kidnap him or b) shoot him.
To us this sounds paranoid. About 10 days before I arrived in Mae Sot, a Burmese exile, sitting in a rocking chair on his porch, was assassinated by Burmese agents who crossed the border and then took a raft back to the Burmese side. As they say, when everyone is out to get you, paranoia just makes good sense.
Later on the same trip, we saw Thai immigration officials returning Burmese migrants to Burma. I tried to photograph them and my fixer asked me not to because the Thai police would come after him. He said, I’d be protected because I’m a farang (Thai for Westerner) but Thai authorities would come after him because he was helping me. I put my cameras down.
I had a similar experience in south Thailand. I was traveling with my fixer on a highway between Pattani and Narathiwat (two large cities in Thailand’s insurgency wracked south). We were stopped at an Army checkpoint where they compared people passing through the checkpoint with a list of people suspected of being insurgents. I asked in the officer in charge if we could photograph and he politely, but firmly, said no. I said okay and we left.
As we drove away, Tuwae, my “fixer” asked why I didn’t push it with the officer. He said the week before I arrived he had worked with a BBC crew who tried to videotape the same checkpoint and got the same answer. The BBC producer then proceeded to read the Thai officer the “riot act.” The “Beeb” producer said that if Thailand is a democracy with a free press then videotaping the checkpoint should be allowed. And that they (the BBC crew) were British, Britain has a free press and he would by God, videotape whatever they wanted to. Only a dictatorship like Burma, he said, would not allow the videotaping. Comparing Thailand to Burma really rankles Thai officials, who take great pride in Thailand’s relative affluence and stability despite the Kingdom’s imperfect democracy.
I told Tuwae that if I had pushed it with the officer I was afraid it would cause problems for him. I told him I was leaving in a week to go back to the US, but he lived in Pattani and that I was afraid anything I did to upset his relationship with local military officials would harm him in the long run. He thanked my for my discretion and then said he wished the BBC crew had shown the same restraint.
The stories I work on when I travel are my stories. I come up with the ideas, I research them and make sure they’re doable. But once I’m on the ground and actually have to conduct the interviews and make the photos it becomes a team effort , a responsibility shared by myself and my fixer. It’s that way for most Western journalists working in the developing world.
While we think about the fate of our countrymen working as journalists under very difficult circumstances we must not lose sight of the local journalists working with them. The risks they face are much greater than the risks any of us face.