A memorial to Polenghi (Reuters)
A memorial to Polenghi (Reuters)

First step to justice in Fabio Polenghi’s killing

EDITOR’S NOTE: A court in Thailand ruled today that Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi was shot and killed by a bullet fired by a soldier during a government crackdown on street protesters on May 19, 2010.  The inquest ruling established the circumstances surrounding his death but failed to apportion blame to any individual military commanders or politicians in power at the time.

Elisabetta Polenghi, Fabio’s sister, indicated after the trial that she will pursue criminal charges to bring those directly responsible for her brother’s death to account. CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin was in attendance at today’s verdict and at an evening press conference with Elisabetta Polenghi at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand. The following are excerpts of Crispin’s statement at the press conference:

CPJ is here tonight to express solidarity with Elisabetta Polenghi’s quest for justice in the 2010 killing of her brother and photojournalist Fabio Polenghi. Her strength and dedication for a fair and honest inquest into her brother’s death has been inspirational for all of us fighting for justice in the cases of killed journalists. She has basically given up the past three years of her life to plan testimony, gather evidence, and locate and cajole witnesses to make her deceased brother’s case.

Nearly three years ago, two months after the military crackdown on street demonstrators, Isa and I shared this same stage to call for truth and justice in Fabio’s death. At that time, CPJ released research that investigated attacks against journalists covering the April-May 2010 unrest, including the tragic killings of Fabio Polenghi and Reuters cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto. Several other journalists suffered significant injuries during the crackdown, the research showed. To date, none have received justice.   

Interviews CPJ conducted with journalists, private investigators and embassy officials soon after the crackdown found that in several instances troops fired in a random manner into crowds of apparently unarmed demonstrators, frequently in areas where reporters were present. CPJ interviews with journalists also highlighted the presence of heavily armed, black-clad protesters who fired gunshots and launched grenades at troops deployed in areas where journalists were positioned.

The verdict in today’s inquest established that the shot that killed Fabio Polenghi came from the direction where troops were positioned at the time. While the verdict did not apportion blame directly to any particular soldier or commander, nor even to the military specifically, CPJ views the verdict as a hopeful first step towards breaking the cycle of impunity in media killings in Thailand.

CPJ regrets that it took three long years to establish what was clear from the start to journalists who were near Fabio at street level when he was fatally shot. We believe that next stage criminal proceedings should proceed swiftly and hold accountable those who had command authority over the troop unit that shot and killed Fabio.

It should also determine whether former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy for security Suthep Thaugsuban gave the orders to shoot that fateful day. Regrettably, neither of their roles was considered in the inquest proceedings. The former prime minister declined an invitation to sit on tonight’s panel.

At the same time, CPJ would like to commend those journalists who bravely stepped forward and gave testimony in Fabio’s inquest. In particular, we tip our cap to documentary filmmaker Bradley Cox, who provided important eyewitness testimony in the inquest and an earlier interview account that contributed significantly to CPJ research. The same goes for Michael Maas who, like Bradley, was also shot and injured on May 19, and gave crucial eyewitness testimony.

That said, CPJ is concerned about the pressure police authorities have applied on certain foreign journalists to make witness statements or turn over their full footage of the April-May unrest.  

Some news organizations have refused these requests out of hand, while others have opted to cooperate, CPJ interviews show. Without big media organizations to provide for the expense of legal counsel, freelancers have been especially vulnerable to this pressure. We believe journalists should be allowed to refuse to cooperate with investigating authorities without threat or consequence.

While we are satisfied with today’s inquest verdict, we are concerned that some witnesses were not allowed to testify, including journalist Jeff Joblonsky who took video footage in the area when Fabio was shot. Judges ruled in at least one instance that a scheduled eyewitness’s testimony was “redundant” with that made by prior witnesses who testified that Fabio was shot from the direction where soldiers were positioned and was thus barred from testifying.

We would hope in the next phase of criminal proceedings that all witnesses recommended by the prosecution be allowed to testify. We also call on government authorities to redouble their efforts in identifying the man in the silver helmet seen in videos who took Fabio’s camera moments after he was shot and killed.

CPJ calls on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government to reject the recent bill forwarded to parliament by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung to pass a blanket amnesty for all those involved in political crimes since the 2006 military coup. Passage of the bill would defy justice and perpetuate the cycle of impunity. Thailand, we believe, needs more rule of law and accountability, not less.    

In a conversation I had with Elisabetta before today’s verdict, she said that the best possible outcome of Fabio’s case would not be revenge against those responsible for her brother’s death, but rather an opportunity to open the door for a change in culture. Let’s hope for the sake of all working journalists in Thailand that that is what today’s verdict signals: an end to the culture of impunity and beginning of a culture of accountability.