Terror in Little Saigon: A ProPublica investigation into journalists murders in the USA

Many thanks to ProPublica for this story that makes it clear there was connections between events in the United States and other countries. (Terror in Little Saigon)

All together, five Vietnamese-American journalists were killed between 1981 and 1990. All worked for small publications serving the refugee population that sought shelter in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975. At least two other people were murdered as well.

FBI agents came to believe that the journalists’ killings, along with an array of fire-bombings and beatings, were terrorist acts ordered by an organization called the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, a prominent group led by former military commanders from South Vietnam. Agents theorized that the Front was intimidating or executing those who defied it, FBI documents show, and even sometimes those simply sympathetic to the victorious Communists in Vietnam. But the FBI never made a single arrest for the killings or terror crimes, and the case was formally closed two decades ago.

We are all aware that in too many countries journalists are killed for doing journalism. Over and over the phrase “violence against journalists is the ultimate act of censorship.” And yet, so few Americans think this can happen in the States.

ProPublica notes how after the murder of Arizona reporter Don Bolles 1976, a group of 40 or so reporters from around the country continued his reporting on organized crime. The idea was to make a clear statement that freedom of press/expression must be defended. The reporting lead to the conviction of Bolles murder.

The ProPublica report notes the killings of Vietnamese-American journalists in Texas, California and Virginia, arsons stretching from Montreal to Orange County, Calif. and death threats to individuals, families and businesses across the country have yet to be solved. After 30 years the FBI still has not arrested anyone for the violence or terrorism, much less charged and convicted them.

The FBI quietly closed its inquiry in the late 1990s, making it one of the most significant unsolved domestic terror cases in the country.

Forces operate to intimidate journalists around the world. There is no reason to believe the United States is immune from such actions.

Journalists who are part of immigrant communities and who cover those communities especially face dangers US-born journalists may not comprehend. Reporters cannot only be threatened while in the States, but their families in their home country can be threatened. These types of threats are typical of gang operations. Organized crime operations such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang have been known to use these tactics against Salvadorans and Hondurans in the United States.

These are stories that are not often told in the United States. Part of the lack of reporting comes from reduced news staffs. But also, part comes from not paying attention to the local immigrant communities.

If local news organizations were more aggressive in reporting about the dynamics within the local immigrant communities, they might see more than quaint festivals from other countries. And along the way, the readers/viewers/listeners to those news organizations would learn more about conditions in other countries and the daily connections to local issues.

Terror in Little Saigon aired on Frontline on PBS Nov. 3

This blog was first posted at the SPJ International Journalism Community site.

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Filed under Connections, Killings

Countries use of visas hurt journalists

Visas are basically applications to enter a country.

The most common visa is for tourism. Brazilians coming to Florida to visit Disney World. Americans going to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Soldiers. And so on…

And then there are specialty visas.

If a person is coming to the States for just a few days for business — to attend a conference, attend company meetings, participate in corporate training — the visa is straight forward and is included in the same category as a tourism visa.

Different visas are needed if a person is going to live and work in the US. And within that group there are different categories.

Most countries have a special category for journalists.

The United States has the I visa for journalists visiting the US for a short period. (Living and working in the US as a journalists — as in other countries — is a whole other issue and category.)

While deportations of journalists arriving on a tourism visa and then doing journalism in the States are rare (and often involve issues other than journalism), other less open countries use the journalism visa to limit access to the world’s media or to punish news organizations for what they perceive as unfriendly coverage.

China has long been known as a real stickler for enforcing its various journalism visas.

The Chinese government has withheld visas from New York Times staffers assigned to its Beijing bureau to punish the paper for printing stories about corruption and favoritism in the government and ruling party. (New York Times journalist forced to leave China after visa row)

And for journalists wanting to go to China, the process is long, tedious and often ends in frustration.

For example, I applied for a journalism visa to cover a conference in Beijing. I was living in Brasilia at the time. The embassy held onto my passport for more than a month. Calls to the embassy about the status of my visa went unanswered, other than “It is in process.”

In the end, I got the visa, but on the day the conference started. Given that it takes more than 30 hours to get from Brasilia to Beijing, that meant I would not be going to cover the conference. (This was something I realized a few weeks earlier. I had to inform my publisher I most likely would not be going to Beijing.)

When I lived in Hong Kong, I often got e-mails from friends in the business asking if they should lie about their profession to avoid any drama with the Chinese government. I always advised people to tell the full truth. Beijing is notorious for using any discrepancy in a visa application to either deny a person a visa or to deport the person for “activity not in compliance with visa status” if the discrepancy is discovered later.

Unfortunately for journalists the “activity not in compliance” excuse is what is most often used to expel alleged spies. (Then again, the thinking in Beijing is that journalists are nothing but spies anyway.)

No one really expects anything less from the control freaks in Beijing.

And then there are governments such as the one in Indonesia that are officially open and democratic but that also freak out if journalists start asking too many questions.

The latest example is of a British journalist being held in Indonesia for filming while doing a documentary on piracy. Usually journalists are just expelled from the country for visa violations, this time, however, the journalists face five months in prison and a $3,700 fine. (Jail British journalists for five months, says Indonesian prosecutor)

There are examples of people who get away with coming in on a tourist visa, doing some journalism and getting out. However, once discovered, these same journalists can kiss goodbye the chance to get another visa. (India: Let us in!)

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Filed under Asia, Freedom of access, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

A Most Interesting Star and a Context Lesson

Geeks and space nerds are all aflutter with word there is something odd about KIC 8462852. And while I really got excited about the news about that star, I also slipped into j-prof mode while reading the pieces.

For me, context is vital to not only telling any story, but also telling a story about an issue or topic that is not normally on the reader’s radar. Normally, in this space it is all about making a global-local connection. This time, it is all about science and excitement about a new discovery. The question here is: How does this fit in with what I already know?

But first, the exciting news from space.

In recent days there have been a number of articles about some great news that from space. The Atlantic Magazine has one of the best pieces about KIC 8462852 and unusual dips and peaks in the light the Kepler telescope received from the star. (The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy)

This is pretty cool.

A paper published about the star drew on data from the Kepler telescope and observations based by PlanetHunters, an online group of just average folks who volunteer their time to study that data. What they all found is a bunch of stuff around the star that, basically, shouldn’t be there.

[There is a] mess big enough to block a substantial number of photons that would have otherwise beamed into the tube of the Kepler Space Telescope. If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now. Gravity would have consolidated it, or it would have been sucked into the star and swallowed, after a brief fiery splash.

So scientists worked at coming up with reasons for all this stuff. There are many natural reasons for the existence of this debris, but there are also some logical and scientifically based explanations that are a bit outside the envelope.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

“When [I saw] the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Sources cited in an Ars Technica piece went further:

Other sources have been reporting that KIC 8462852’s behavior could be evidence of an alien Dyson sphere or an alien megastructure. The researchers didn’t actually discuss this possibility in their paper, where they concluded the comets are currently the best explanation. But as the cometary explanation is not fully satisfying, lead author Tabetha Boyajian of Yale consulted with Jason Wright, an astrophysicist with Penn State University, who had studied ways to detect potential extraterrestrial constructions.

Wright posited that the dips in flux from the star might be due to an alien Dyson sphere. Dyson spheres, of Star Trek fame, are massive, hypothetical constructs built around a star to collect its energy through millions of solar panels.

Even though aliens should be the last thing to consider, that does not mean they should not be considered.

As a j-prof these articles hit all the right buttons:

  • Newsy
  • Interesting
  • Just enough “isn’t this odd” to draw in readers
  • Well written

But what really struck me — again as a j-prof — about the articles written about this odd-duck star is that no one said how far away it was.

Yes, it is in our galaxy, so it is not too far away — in terms of all of space — but it is hardly next door. A few seconds of research showed that this very interesting star is 1,480 light years away. That means the light left that system in 535 CE.

If the residents of the KIC 8462852 system did build space stations or a Dyson sphere, think about how far ahead of us they are. Here are some things that were happening on Earth in the 6th century:

  • The Mayans were in their Classical Period
  • This is the century of King Arthur and Beowulf
  • Mohammad was born in 570. (So 35 years after the light left KIC 8462852.)
  • And in 589, the Chinese scholar made the first known reference to toilet paper.

And the residents of KIC 8462852 were building large space-based systems. (Or so it is speculated.)

Is knowing that the star is about 1,500 light years away vital to the story? No. But it does help put the discussion of what is going on there in context. It is not as if we will be able to communicate with anyone in that system until the laws of science are changed — hint: warp drive and sub-space communication (thank you Star Trek.)

And, another bit while wearing the j-prof hat:

It takes just a few extra steps to make international issues relevant and interesting to Main Street. Likewise, to make science and the scientific process exciting, it takes great writing and an appeal to the readers’ imagination.

Many thanks to Ross Andersen at The Atlantic and the folks at Ars Technica for meeting this standard so well. This really is exciting news and they made it sound exciting.

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Filed under Connections, Kepler

Human Trafficking: A Dark Side to Local-Global Connections

Local reporters looking for a story that links the rest of the world with Main Street should pay attention to the growing atrocity of human trafficking.

“You say human trafficking, and people think…international cabal, organized crime, kids coming from Southeast Asia in cages. That’s not what it is,” says Montgomery County (MD) Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Mays, who has prosecuted numerous sex trafficking cases in recent years. “Most of it is homegrown guys who are exploiting vulnerable women and children in their own communities, or traveling them around, up and down the East Coast.” — Human Trafficking in Montgomery County, Bethesda Magazine

According to the Polaris Project, a group that helps victims of trafficking, sex trafficking accounts for 71 percent of the calls to their hotline. Labor trafficking takes up another 16 percent. of the 5,000 cases opened during 2014. The cases are active investigations that came from more than 24,000 calls to the Polaris hotline, seeking help.

The International Labor Organization estimates 14.2 million people are in forced labor circumstances.

The Bethesda Magazine article says more reports come in each day as more people become aware that human trafficking is not something far away, but rather something much closer.

 “The numbers seem low, and I think what in reality is happening is we’re seeing human trafficking kind of emerge like domestic violence did 30 years ago,” says Amanda Rodriguez, who until recently oversaw human trafficking policy at the [Maryland’s] Office of Crime Control and Prevention. “The more people are becoming aware, the more these numbers are going to go up, because it is absolutely happening next door and in the community.”

The issue involves Americans and foreign nationals caught up in one of the most dangerous and demeaning  crimes in the world. And it does not just involve — as the primary case in the Bethesda Magazine article — household employees of diplomats.

“Common types of labor trafficking in the United States include people forced to work in homes as domestic servants, farm workers coerced through violence as they harvest crops, or factory workers held in inhumane conditions,” says the Polaris Project. “Labor trafficking has also been reported in door-to-door sales crews, carnivals, and health and beauty services.”

Just about every news outlet in the United States has an audience that includes the people mentioned above. Therefore, there is no reason to not look into local labor and working conditions.

This is perhaps one of the darkest and most gruesome links between Main Street and the rest of the world. And, unfortunately, it is not limited to international trafficking.

Increasingly sex trafficking…sex trafficking is taking place in well-appointed hotels that do not fit into the red-light district stereotype of eras past. In August, Armand Theinkue Donfack, a Germantown (MD) soccer coach, was charged with prostitution and human trafficking after an undercover sting at a hotel off I-270.

I orginally posted this piece on the International Journalism Community of the SPJ.

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Filed under Connections, Human Rights, Human Trafficking

Honduran Arrests Can Affect News Media Landscape

Originally posted at Journalism and the World, Society of Professional Journalists

The US government arrested Honduran Yanki Rosenthal when he landed in Miami October 6 on charges of money laundering. The next day indictments were handed down for other members of his family.

While many in the world media are focusing on Yanki’s ownership of a major Honduran soccer team and the family’s ownership of the bank Grupo Continental, the reach of the Rosenthal family is much more extensive.

For journalists, the indictments hit close to home.

The Rosenthals own one of the major newspapers — El Tiempo — and a national TV outlet — Canal 11.

How the Honduran press handled the arrest and indictments clearly showed the biases

El Tiempo lead with:

The Continental Group issued a statement rejecting the accusations made Wednesday the Treasury Department of the United States, where several companies linked to the group of the crime of money laundering. Facing accusations Continental Group denies allegations of money laundering involving companies in the Continental Group.

Competitor El Heraldo, however, went with:

The US attorney in Manhattan announced charges Wednesday against four Hondurans by “laundering of proceeds of drug trafficking and bribery crimes through accounts in the United States.

Rolando Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, Yani Benjamin Rosenthal Hidalgo, Yankel Rosenthal and Andrew Acosta Garcia Coello “were charged in connection with a conspiracy carried out over several years to launder profits from drug crimes,” said the office of the Southern District of New York.

The newspapers — and television news outlets — have never been shy about showing off the political leanings of the owners. It will now be interesting to see how the news media handle the trials of one of the five big families of Honduras.

What will be important for foreign journalists to pay attention to will not be the cat fight that is sure to be played out in the front pages, but rather if (when) the number of life-threatening threats against journalists covering this case increases.

Journalists in Honduras have faced numerous threats — not so much from the government as from the narcos. Threats will most likely come against anyone digging deeply into this story.

THIS IS BIG! In the past, the US and Honduran governments have acted against drug kingpins and their holdings. This is the first time there is a major move against such a prominent family and such large corporate holdings in the country. Among those indicted are a former president of the country and a presidential candidate for the Liberal Party, the mainstream opposition party to the ruling National Party.

Grupo Continental is one of the largest banks in Honduras. Its holding extend deeply into Honduran society, including — as noted — the news media.

Under Honduran law, the property and goods of indicted individuals is put under the control of the Administrative Office of Seized Goods (OABI). When a major narco was arrested, OABI took over control of his private zoo, which was occasionally opened to the public. OABI brought in animal experts to evaluate and run the zoo and kept it open to the public. (The narco zoo was much larger than the Tegucigalpa Zoo, but the animals were in much worse shape.)

Seized gym equipment was donated to outreach centers to help keep young people active in safe (non-gang related) activities. Likewise, OABI arranged for a boat, including fuel and maintenance for the boat, so a school in Cayos Cochinos could make sure the kids got an education. (The islands are inhabited by some of the poorest people in Honduras.)

The director of OABI fought corrupt bosses and politicians before he rose to the top job. Once he took command of the organization, he made sure everything was handled by the book. (In other words, no more seized cars for a political leader, just because he wants one.)

The director understands and operates OABI under a transparent and open system. He also understands that fighting back against intimidation is important part of beating corruption. His heart and mind are in the right place to allow El Tiempo and Channel 11 operate as fair and independent news outlets, if they are seized under the law.

He might even appoint a director of the newspaper and TV channel who will encourage the journalists in those groups to step out from the partisan restrictions of the current owners. And maybe even help arrange for some additional training.

And if anyone is looking for a success story about the fight against corruption, a profile of OABI and its director is a good place to start.

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Filed under Central America, Corruption

Getting UNGA to get real on press freedom

Joel Simon from the Committee to Protect Journalists has a featured piece in Columbia Journalism Review on how the United Nations should — but really can’t — do something about press freedom.

What can the UN do for press freedom?

Bottom line: Not much, but it can make some nice statements.

Responding to an upsurge in media killings, particularly of journalists working in conflict zones, the UN has prioritized the issue of journalists’ safety in recent years. In 2012, UNESCO, the UN agency charged with defending press freedom, launched a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The following year, the General Assembly passed a resolution to create an International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists, marked each year on November 2.

In July 2013, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, become the first ever journalist to address the Security Council. She noted, “Most journalists who die today are not caught in some wartime crossfire, they are murdered just because of what they do. And those murders are rarely ever solved; the killers rarely ever punished.” Last May, the Security Council passed a historic resolution reaffirming the international legal protections for journalists covering armed conflict. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon regularly condemns the killing of journalists, and calls on member states to take action.

All of these measures are important, and have tremendous symbolic value. But it is difficult to point to concrete advances in response to UN action. In fact, the level of violence against journalists has increased in recent years, and imprisonment of journalists around the world has reached record levels. Recent high-profile cases—including the conviction of three Al Jazeera reporters in Egypt; the ongoing imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in Iran; and the seven-and-a-half-year sentence handed down to renowned investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan—demonstrate that when it comes to imprisoning journalists, repressive governments are increasingly unresponsive to international pressure.

Simon argues journalists, diplomats and other human rights defenders need to use the occasion of the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, when leaders from around the world come to New York to argue for more action to protect journalists in their home countries.

Over the years, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which I head, has used the General Assembly to secure commitments from a number of heads of state, including former President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who agreed to appoint a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who committed during a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations to receive a CPJ delegation in Ankara.

Simon says this one-on-one approach should not let the United Nations, itself, off the hook, but it appears to the only way — for now — to get things done.

He argues journalists should demand accountability from the leaders who speak a the UNGA for their violations of press freedom. By just reporting the speeches and not looking at the records of the speakers, journalists become accomplices in efforts to whitewash media repression.

This item was initially posted at the SPJ International Community site: Journalism and the World.

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Filed under Press Freedom

Media lessons from ‘The Wright Brothers’: What historic stories are we missing today?

Steve Buttry once again nails it. Media lessons from ‘The Wright Brothers’: What historic stories are we missing today?

The lesson here is to be open minded and look for the unusual.

Today this can also be applied to looking for connections between international and local events.

Maybe local reporters may not be missing out on history, but they could be missing out on excellent stories by not digging deeper into local immigrant communities or economic connections with the rest of the world. (And again, I am not talking about Chinese-made products in the local Wal-Mart or the local Hyundi dealership sales.)

Many American companies are owned by foreign companies. Here is an excellent list: Ten Classic American Brands That Are Foreign-Owned

What they did not mention was how IBM sold off their computer operations to the Chinese company Lenovo. Or how Ben & Jerry’s is really owned by Unilever out of the UK or how a Chinese company now owns the AMC movie theater chain.

Yep, there are a lot of local-global connections, all that is needed is some imagination and willingness to look beyond the surface.

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Filed under Connections, International News Coverage