Colleagues try to pull NBC soundman Bill Latch to safety during violence in Bangkok 25 years ago. Latch and correspondent Neil Davis died in the unrest. (Reuters)
Colleagues try to pull NBC soundman Bill Latch to safety during violence in Bangkok 25 years ago. Latch and correspondent Neil Davis died in the unrest. (Reuters)

In Thailand, remembering Neil Davis, Bill Latch

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) hosted a memorial Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of the deaths of NBC cameraman correspondent Neil Davis and soundman Bill Latch. The two journalists were killed by military fire on September 9, 1985, while covering a failed coup attempt in the Thai capital. 

Davis, who covered the Vietnam War for more than a decade beginning in 1964, was one of the most storied war correspondents of his generation. “Frontline,” a critically acclaimed 1979 documentary shown at the FCCT event, chronicled the extraordinary risks Davis took while reporting from the battlefield, including his historic footage of North Vietnamese tanks breaking through the gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace, the iconic image of the end of the war.

Veteran journalists Jim Pringle, a former Reuters and Newsweek correspondent, and Derek Williams, a former CBS cameraman and current director of Asiaworks Television, spoke about their fallen colleagues. Pringle described his time in Saigon with Davis, whom he called “the greatest overall journalist of the Vietnam War.” “It is said the first casualty of war is truth,” said Pringle, “but that was not the case with Neil.”

Williams spoke about the circumstances surrounding the deaths, recounting that Davis turned his camera on himself after being hit by shrapnel. He noted that the soldiers responsible for the attack that took their lives went unpunished. Indeed, none of the coup’s plotters–including Col. Manoon Rupekachorn, Lt. Col. Prajark Sawangjit, and Gen. Serm Na Nakorn–were ever sentenced. All were granted parliamentary amnesty in 1988.

Manoon, who later changed his name to Manoonkrit, was elected a senator in 2000, a development the FCCT protested in a letter at the time. Prajark committed suicide in 2003, on the same date that Davis and Latch were killed in 1985, according to Williams, who speculated that the former soldier’s death was related “more to cognac than karma.”

The memorial event had special poignancy given the recent deaths of Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto and freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi, both killed while covering armed exchanges between Thai troops and protestors in April and May. A CPJ special report found numerous indications that those responsible will not be held accountable–just as the perpetrators in Davis’ and Latch’s killings escaped accountability 25 years ago.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has formed a fact-finding committee to investigate this year’s protest-related deaths, but its leader, former Attorney General Khanit Na Nakorn, said in June that his panel is more concerned with promoting forgiveness than assigning blame. CPJ research found that authorities refused to make foot soldiers available for interviews with private investigators looking into the circumstances of Muramoto’s death. The government has also declined to release closed circuit footage of the area where Muramoto was shot and killed.

Williams noted that the circumstances surrounding Muramoto’s and Polenghi’s shooting deaths were less clear-cut than with Davis and Latch, but from his perspective it appears that they were killed by Thai soldiers. Pringle recalled how Davis’ and Latch’s deaths had a divisive impact on the Bangkok-based press corps, including a sharp debate among reporters about whether enough had been done to pursue justice for their fallen colleagues.

Judging by the robust turnouts and impassioned presentations at recent press freedom-related events at the FCCT, including Thursday’s commemorative event for Davis and Latch, there is strong media consensus today on the need for justice.  

(Reporting from Bangkok)