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An Exchange for Ethics

Veteran Vietnam correspondents have an exchange whether to compromise ethics for access.

From Jon Swain
Sunday Times, London
Nov. 18, 2010

The great Don Wise (London Mirror Daily) also put his occupation on immigration forms as "waiter". When found out he would admit that he was a "writer" and blame the confusion over his occupation on a misspelling.

I have no hesitation going to nasty countries under false pretences when it is the only way. In 1988 during the student uprising in Rangoon three of us paid a Thai forger in Bangkok $200 each to forge a Burmese embassy visa rubber stamp complete with crest and all. He then put the visa on a page in our passports, filled it in and forged the signature of the visa officer at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. His forgery was so good that although we were about the only westerners entering Burma at that moment, the immigration officer at Rangoon airport was not suspicious and stamped our visas as genuine. I was later arrested for photographing near a military base and taken to a police station to help police with their inquiries. |I had my rolls of film in my boots. I was released after claiming that I was an estate agent  from Hong Kong who had come to check out the possibility of investing in the Rangoon property market.

The Burmese military regime deserves to have such tricks played on it.


Neal Ulevich, Nov. 18, 2010
ex-Associated Press

We have here a foundational question: Is it a lie to deceive people who have no moral right to the truth?

On a somewhat lower level of abstraction, I recall a conversation with the late Don Wise. We were in a Kuala Lumpur airport immigration line, and he fulminated over the then-current British practice of listing occupation in passports. The next time he renewed his passport, he said, he would list an occupation that no immigration inspector would notice or take issue with. "Sniper."


James Pringle
ex-Reuters, Newsweek, Times of London
Nov. 17, 2010

No, John, journalists are NOT being allowed into Burma, though plenty are in, but they are all those who are not on the military's black list, which is recorded in the Immigration computers at the Rangoon airport, and at all regional embassies.    You better stick to your dumb Italian tourist ruse.

FYI, I've once been in as a paint salesman, because of the deplorable rundown state of Rangoon at the time, and a tubular steel sales representative - I've had fake business cards printed to cover these innocent occupations. (These days, you might do better with 'nuclear physicist' or 'fission spare parts' salesman).

I believe, of course, in truth in journalism, but our first duty to our editors and readers is surely to get into a country under turmoil or dictatorship even if you have to tell a barefaced fib at immigration. Unfortunately, on my part, little white lies don't work any more. I'm hopeful that the god of Old Hacks wouldn't send me to the nether regions for telling whoppers to immigration agents.

That is why Seth Mydans of the New York Times, based in Bangkok, and most other members of the Bangkok FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand) are stuck: the Burmese embassy also has a copy of the FCCT annual list of hacks and shooters.

This is also why, through no fault of their own, the reporters and photographers covering the current visit on tourist visas have, for the most part, little first-hand experience of Burma and the earlier brutal violence, or of the redoubtable Madam Suu Kyi in the past.  That's why I wrote that earlier story for The Times pulling together elements of older stories.

NB:   It might be worth hearing from other Old Hacks if they regard telling porkers in the course of trying to cover a story is an acceptable course, or have we got some pious former Boy Scouts or little George Washingtons in our midst who think this a no-no?