On April 10, 2010, Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto was shot dead while filming clashes between Thai soldiers, Red Shirt protesters and unknown gunmen in the Rachadamnoen area of Bangkok. He was 43 years old and is survived by his wife, Emiko, and two children. Hiro joined Reuters as a freelance cameraman in 1992 and became full-time in 1995. The final footage he filmed before his death showed him in the thick of the fighting on April 10 – a day in which five soldiers and 20 other civilians were also killed. Among the incidents he filmed was a still unexplained grenade attack that killed Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, a rising military star and deputy chief of staff of the Queen’s Guard.
From the beginning, the evidence on Hiro’s death suggested he was killed by a bullet fired by a Thai soldier. It seems unlikely he was deliberately targeted because he was a journalist; instead, he was killed when soldiers fired live ammunition randomly at protesters. This was the conclusion reached by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), an agency roughly equivalent to the U.S. FBI. Despite being an overtly politicized institution, the DSI still has many honest investigators who make a genuine effort to do their job. The investigators on Hiro’s case concluded that he was most likely shot dead by a soldier in the Royal Thai Army. DSI director general Tharit Pengdith conceded this point in a news conference on November 16, 2010:
Since there was possible involvement by government officers, we have to start from square one by letting police investigate further.
In December, the DSI investigation report on Hiro and another report on the killing of six civilians in the Wat Pathum Wanaram temple on May 19, 2010, were leaked to Reuters. The leaked document on Hiro confirmed the DSI’s conclusion that the Thai military was probably responsible for his death, and that the case had been handed to police for further investigation. DSI chief Tharit denied to the Thai media that the documents were genuine, but in conversations with Reuters he conceded they were genuine but preliminary.
As is standard when a member of staff is killed in the line of duty, Reuters commissioned an independent investigation by a professional security company. The company used was one of the leaders in the field; the probe was conducted by experts in forensic investigation. Their report also concluded that Hiro was killed by a bullet fired by a Thai soldier, probably not specifically targeted. It added that the bullet that killed Hiro was most likely to have been standard military issue, and not from an AK47 or pistol. This report was kept confidential within Reuters management, but I became aware of the key findings.
In late February 2011, DSI officials began to state that they had uncovered new evidence that Hiro had been killed by an AK47 bullet and that this absolved the military of blame:
Thai investigators have concluded the fatal bullet was of 7.62 mm caliber and that soldiers were armed with M-16 rifles that fire 5.56 mm bullets, the Director General of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) told a news conference.
“The bullet that shot Muramoto was 7.62 mm not M-16 that was used by the authorities,” Tharit said. “It could be an AK-47 or something similar … but exactly who shot him I can’t answer at this point. We need more investigation.”
Disturbingly, it transpired that this conclusion was based on the opinion of a single source, former police Lieutenant General Amporn Jarujinda, purely on the basis of viewing photographs of Hiro’s wounds. As the Bangkok Post reported:
Former police forensic science chief Amporn Jarujinda, who is now an adviser to the DSI and has reviewed a report on the cameraman’s autopsy, suggested recently that the man was killed with an AK-47 rifle.
Mr Tharit and Pol Lt Gen Amporn would meet reporters today to present the findings of the panel on the cause of death of Muramoto and 10 others who died in the street clashes.
The source said that while Pol Lt Gen Amporn might be providing advice to the DSI, he was not among the people who observed the autopsy to determine the cause of death of Muramoto. He was overseas at the time.
Pol Lt Gen Amporn only analysed the cause of Muramoto’s death from photos of the wounds on his body and concluded that the wounds were caused by an AK-47 rifle.
Furthermore, the sudden U-turn followed widespread reports that hardline army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha had paid a call on DSI director Tharit to remonstrate with him over the initial preliminary conclusions. The Thai military continues to claim – bizarrely and unsupportably – that it was not responsible for any deaths or even any injuries during violent clashes in Bangkok in April and May 2010, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. This was also reported in the Bangkok Post:
The army is breathing a sigh of relief after a Department of Special Investigation (DSI) report concluded troops were not responsible for the death of a Japanese cameraman during last year’s red shirt protests.
However, the relief may be short-lived, amid claims that the army chief of staff paid the DSI head a visit to complain about an initial department finding which claimed the opposite – that soldiers should in fact be blamed for Japanese cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto’s death during the rally at Khok Wua intersection on April 10 last year.
The DSI is likely to face questions about why it changed its stance, though DSI director-general Tharit Pengdit yesterday stood by the latest report, saying it was based on scientific and forensic findings. He also denied meeting the army chief of staff.
The weapons report, which he did not release, found that the Reuters News Agency cameraman was shot dead with an AK-47 rifle while covering the clashes.
In that case, troops could not be blamed for the death, said the report, because they carried different weapons.
Mr Tharit said Muramoto’s body was found with AK-47 bullet wound patterns. Soldiers had not used the weapon, he said.
The Bangkok Post also reported on comments by Amporn and Tharit during their news conference, in which Amporn claimed to have been able to verify the type of bullet that killed Hiro – just by looking at photographs – with remarkable ease:
Is it true that the wounds of the red shirt victims were so severe that forensic workers found it almost impossible to establish the type of firearms that killed them?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: We could tell in some cases. There are cases where we couldn’t.
Why did it take almost a year to determine the type of firearms?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: I don’t know. I figured it out in an hour.
Could you explain why the first examination did not mention anything about an AK-47 rifle?
Mr Tharit: The DSI never specified the type of firearm. We have a witness who claimed to be standing close to Mr Muramoto. He saw that the cameraman was shot but he didn’t know where the shot came from. He is convinced the bullet was fired from where security forces were. The DSI has just one witness. So the department assumed Mr Muramoto’s death was related to the security forces and forwarded the case to the Metropolitan Police Bureau for forensic examination.
The bureau does autopsies and it takes charge of cases related to government forces. The DSI received more information about Mr Muramoto’s case and forwarded it to the bureau.
Why was Pol Lt Gen Amporn’s report not included in the first investigative report?
Mr Tharit: This is because the examination of the wound patterns took place after the DSI sent the report to the bureau.
Why did it take so long?
Mr Tharit: We just invited Pol Lt Gen Amporn to take part in the process because his contribution would make the investigation more thorough and comprehensive.
What about the other victims? Were they killed by the same type of bullet?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: Those are smaller wounds, as far as I remember.
Can you specify the type of firearms?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: I can’t.
Were there similar wounds on other victims’ bodies?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: I haven’t seen any so far.
Mr Muramoto’s case is different, isn’t it?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: Yes.
Can you tell from the wound if he was shot from the front or from behind?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: The bullet was fired from the front. The entry wound was in the right chest and the exit wound was through the right shoulder blade.
Can the ballistics report tell if the shot was fired from where security forces were?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: No.
Are SKS carbines and 05-NATO guns used in Thailand?
Pol Lt Gen Amporn: Yes. Otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned them.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement raising concerns that a whitewash was under way:
“The contradiction of the preliminary findings of the investigation into journalist Hiro Muramoto’s death raises questions about the independence of the government’s investigation,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We are particularly concerned by reports that a senior military official may have pressured the DSI into censoring its initial findings.”
Among others to raise grave doubts about the DSI’s new findings was the deputy commander of Bangkok Metropolitan Police, Lieutenant General Amnuay Nimmano:
It’s DSI’s own theory, own leads, own investigation and own conclusion, without police getting involved, and based on nothing convincing or credible. To put it simply, the conclusion is simply muddled.
Because I was aware of the third-party investigation commissioned by Reuters, and its findings that the evidence suggested Hiro was shot by a military issue bullet and not an AK47, I sent an e-mail at this time to senior Asia editorial managers asking permission to report excerpts from the investigation conclusions. I never received a formal reply but was informally told by other managers that the Asia editor was “irritated” by my intervention. I found this very troubling, and I privately and confidentially contacted senior managers based in the United States to discuss my concerns.
As a former Baghdad bureau chief, and subsequently managing editor of Reuters for the whole Middle East region, I have been directly involved in company investigations into the deaths of six colleagues:
- Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, killed by a U.S. soldier who mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher outside Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad in August 2003.
- Dhia Najm, a freelance cameraman working for Reuters, killed in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in November 2004, most probably by a U.S. Marine sniper.
- Reuters driver Waleed Khaled, killed by U.S soldiers who opened fire on his car in western Baghdad in August 2005.
- Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh, killed when a U.S. Apache helicopter opened fire on them and several other Iraqis in northeastern Baghdad in July 2007. Their deaths have been seen by millions after WikiLeaks released video of the attack taken from an onboard camera in the Apache.
- Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, killed in Gaza in April 2008 by an anti-personnel flechette shell fired by an Israeli tank around a mile away. Soldiers in the tank apparently believed Fadel’s camera and tripod were some kind of weapon. Fadel filmed the firing of the tank shell that killed him and several bystanders.
I was also directly involved in the Reuters investigation into the torture and sexual abuse of three of my Iraqi staff by U.S. soldiers during three days when they were detained near Falluja in January 2004. So it is fair to say I have considerable experience of sensitive investigations within Reuters. I am well aware of the need to work with authorities to help uncover the truth rather than alienating them by being overly shrill and accusatory. I am also aware of the necessity of taking a robust stance at times when the authorities appear to be failing in their duties to transparently and honestly investigate the circumstances of such incidents. The bottom line is: we work with the authorities to help uncover the truth. We have no interest in a witch-hunt, or in making unsupported accusations. Our goal – as it is in our journalism – is simply to find the truth. And from that, accountability and justice can follow.
It is also worth putting on record that in all the cases I was closely involved with, senior Reuters management were fully supportive and, when necessary, courageous.
Things were very different when it came to Hiro, however. I was troubled to discover from senior management sources that not only was Reuters not allowing me to report the findings of the third-party investigation the company had commissioned, but that it had also failed to even share these findings privately with the Thai authorities. It is sometimes necessary to maintain confidentiality about sensitive investigations while working with national and/or military and police authorities: sometimes going public too soon will alienate people we need to co-operate with. But in my experience, it is unprecedented for Reuters to not even share internal findings privately with the relevant authorities: it leaves the company exposed to the accusation it has failed in its duty to assist the authorities in their job uncovering the truth. I sent detailed messages to senior managers explaining why I thought the behaviour of Reuters on Hiro was both unethical and counterproductive. Some time later I was told that a decision had been made to redact the third-party investigation report and remove the name of the company that conducted the investigation and also remove the names of sources who provided information. A redacted extract would be provided privately to Thai authorities. I considered this inadequate in many ways but nevertheless better than nothing, and waited for progress.
On March 24, Thai police officially “confirmed” the DSI’s new findings that there was no evidence Hiro had been killed by the Thai military.
April 10 was the first anniversary of Hiro’s death. A few days beforehand, the Reuters managing editor for Asia circulated an e-mail notifying staff that a minute’s silence would be held in his memory. I replied asking once again – in my capacity as a senior editor with responsibility for political and general news coverage on Thailand, among other countries – whether I could report on the evidence in Reuters possession suggesting authorities were lying in their latest findings on Hiro. I was given a stern talking to. Among the reasons I was given for the company’s failure to share the information was that under Thai law it had been illegal for them to commission a third-party investigation into Hiro’s death, and that when commissioning the report, their agreement with the company that handled the investigation was that it would remain confidential. I did not consider these adequate reasons to withhold important findings about Hiro’s death, and I said so.
On April 11, senior Asia-based Reuters management staff met DSI chief Tharit in Bangkok to discuss progress in the investigation on Hiro. Unaccountably, they failed to share the redacted text that Reuters had prepared. I was later told that it had been decided to hand the redacted text personally to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva himself, at an as-yet unconfirmed private audience. The Bangkok Post reported on the DSI meeting:
Mr Tharit said DSI investigators had explained all the facts surrounding the official investigation into Muramoto’s death to the Reuters representatives during their one-hour meeting.
He said he had no idea whether the two were satisfied with his clarifications, saying they appeared passive and did not submit any additional documents to the DSI.
“I propose to the Reuters news agency to help seek further facts and evidence because, by doing this, any witness to the crime might be daring enough to provide tip-offs to Reuters more than they would to the [Thai] state officials,” Mr Tharit said.
“After that, Reuters could relay this [given] information to the DSI for further investigation.”
The representatives said they would take the DSI’s proposal into consideration and get back to the department later.
They would occasionally ask about progress of the case, Mr Tharit said.
The Reuters editors declined to give details of the talks but issued a statement saying the agency had been granted a meeting with Thai officials to discuss the investigation of Muramoto’s death.
As is by now widely known, I resigned from Reuters on June 3 in order to publish a lengthy story on Thailand based on thousands of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables. That story can be found here. Reuters decided the story was too risky to run, given its substantial presence in Thailand. As I wrote in the story and a companion piece in the Independent newspaper, I understood that decision and did not criticize Reuters for it. My resignation marked the end of my ability to intercede with editors about Hiro while working inside the company. But I awaited the promised meeting with Abhisit in which Reuters would share its information with him.
On June 14, Reuters had an exclusive interview with Abhisit. They did not share the information.
I am therefore now sharing the key passage from the third-party report commissioned by Reuters. I am maintaining confidentiality on the name of the company that conducted the investigation, and other details. If Reuters chooses to contest the authenticity of the extract I am sharing, I will provide more detailed documentary evidence. I am sharing this information reluctantly and with no desire to undermine Reuters, which I still consider to be a news organization that deserves respect, not to mention a place where many fine colleagues and friends still work. But it has become clear that the inept, unethical and counterproductive behaviour of some senior management staff in Asia will prevent Reuters ever uncovering the truth about Hiro unless action is taken. It is my hope that Reuters learns from this experience and never again entrusts such important decisions to those lacking the ability to behave sensibly and ethically in sensitive situations. Hiro’s family and friends, and all of the staff of Reuters, deserve better. The extract from the third-party report is reproduced below. It is verbatim apart from redactions signified by Xs in the text:
Hiro Muramoto (‘Hiro’) was shot, almost certainly by a 5.56mm high velocity round, on 10 April in Dinso Road, West Bangkok at 21:01/2 Bangkok time.
XXXXXXX was not able to sight an official autopsy report or any forensics carried out on his body. However, an interview with the surgeon in charge of triage at the BMA (Klang) Hospital on 10 April stated Hiro ultimately died from a tension pneumothorax precipitated by massive internal bleeding. The surgeon speculated that such bleeding would cause death within two minutes of initiation. The ambulance crew that transported Hiro to hospital stated they could find no vital signs and the doctor who examined him at the Klang Hospital declared him ‘dead before arrival’.
The entry wound that caused Hiro’s death was centred below the clavicle and pectoral, centred on the heart. The surgeon interviewed by XXXXXXX confirmed the wound to be consisted with that caused by a bullet. Hiro also exhibited an exit wound on the left tricep. Such a non-linear exit wound is consistent with the impact of a high-velocity 5.56mm standard Nato issue round (and inconsistent with, for example, the impact of a .38 pistol shot, a rubber bullet, or a round fired by an AK47 assault rifle).
It’s time for Reuters to start working to help uncover the truth, rather than colluding in suppressing it.