cnn thailand controversy
CNN correspondents Anna Coren (centre) and Daniel Hodge (right) came under fire for filming on the site of one of Thailand's worst ever massacres without proper permission. Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Arrested CNN Crew Apologise on Video for Filming in Massacre Crime Scene

"What’s the point of showing a blood-splattered, shot-up nursery?"

Thai authorities have arrested two CNN journalists, revoked their visas, and circulated a video of them apologising on camera after the pair entered the site of last week’s Thai nursery massacre and filmed the crime scene.

“I would like to offer my deepest apologies to the people of Thailand, especially the families of the victims of this tragedy,” CNN correspondent Anna Coren says in the video, which appears to have been filmed in a Thai police station. “We are so sorry if we caused you more pain and suffering. That was never our intention.”

Advertisement

“We would also like to apologise to the Thai police,” she continues, “and to the deputy police chief for the inconvenience that we have caused. We know that your country is going through such a painful time, and we never came here to cause more grief.”

Coren and her cameraman, Daniel Hodge, became the subject of controversy on Saturday after CNN recorded a segment inside the pre-school daycare centre in Uthai Sawan where, on Thursday afternoon, an ex-police officer murdered 37 people, 24 of whom were children. The rampage, which ranks as the most deadly massacre by a single killer in Thailand’s history, has horrified the nation and drawn attention from media organisations around the world. 

But while CNN claimed in its graphic report that it “was allowed inside the scene of the crime,” others—including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT)—were quick to condemn the actions of the U.S.-based news company.

“A CNN team entered a clearly marked crime scene without permission—no matter what they may claim. This was unprofessional and a serious breach of journalistic ethics in crime reporting,” the FCCT wrote in a statement on Saturday night. “No other news organisation, foreign or local, was prepared to behave in this unethical manner.”

“Thailand has been traumatised by this tragedy, and there has been wide concern all along that inappropriate images should not be made public in traditional and social media. Simple respect for the deceased and their families is but one of the reasons.”

Advertisement

Teeranai Charuvastra, vice president of the Thai Journalists Association, and a writer with local outlet Prachatai, was the first to tweet his surprise at seeing footage of the CNN crew inside the pre-school. In a thread that went viral, he also shared an image that appears to show Coren and Hodge leaving the cordoned-off daycare centre by climbing over a fence and police tape, further fueling outrage that had already begun to flare up across social media.

“It’s irrefutable that what CNN did has a risk, has a harm,” Teeranai told VICE World News. “What CNN did was break this unspoken truce for reporters to respect the boundaries, to not compete with one another and pressure one another to get content through questionable means.” 

Teeranai added that while pushing ethical boundaries and showing gratuitous images is a problem also present within local Thai journalism, many within the industry were most taken aback by the fact it was CNN journalists who behaved in this manner. 

“One reason why Thai journalists were shocked by this, apart from the fact that people wandered into the crime scene of the worst mass killing in our country, was because it was CNN,” he said.

“Here in Thailand, CNN is highly regarded as one of those professional media [outlets] from the West. The kind of media that sets and practices the standards that other media should meet.” 

Advertisement

As the chorus of online criticism reverberated on Saturday evening, local officials were among those who filed complaints to police, who launched an inquiry and eventually arrested Coren and Hodge. On Sunday night, deputy national police chief Surachate Hakparn said officers had cleared the CNN journalists of wrongdoing, accepting that they had not intended to trespass but had been waved into the building by a volunteer or a health officer who was not authorised to give access.

Police also found, however, that Coren and Hodge were in Thailand on tourist visas that prohibited them from working, and issued them with fines of 5,000 baht ($133) along with instructions to leave the country.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said there’s “no doubt the CNN team is getting off with a slap on the wrist by only being fined for working on tourist visas and ordered to leave the country.”

“It’s obvious that the CNN team took advantage of a situation to try and get an exclusive, regardless of the consequences,” Robertson told VICE World News. “I don’t believe for a second that the reporter and cameraman didn’t know that what they were doing was totally dodgy and unethical. This is a pattern we’ve seen before with arrogant CNN journalists parachuting into the middle of a story, and trying to elbow everyone out of the way.”

Advertisement

CNN declined to comment when approached by VICE World News, but Mike McCarthy, executive vice president and general manager of CNN International, said in a statement on Sunday that the team on the ground didn’t know the daycare centre was off limits and didn’t intend to break any rules. McCarthy also pointed out that there was no police tape on the scene when the journalists first entered, and that they worked “carefully and respectfully inside the building for around 15 minutes” before leaving, at which point the police tape had been erected.

“The team entered the building in good faith, to gain a fuller impression of what transpired inside and to humanise the scale of the tragedy for their audience,” the statement read. “We deeply regret any distress or offence our report may have caused.”

McCarthy’s defence seems to draw on CNN’s mission statement, as declared in the company’s main Twitter bio: that “It’s our job to #GoThere & tell the most difficult stories.” But many are now raising serious questions around where the boundaries of that job lie—and, more specifically, whether such traumatic material falls within the remit of public interest journalism.

A senior journalist working in Thailand, who commented on condition of anonymity as they aren’t authorised to speak about the issue, told VICE World News that “even with permission, what’s the point of showing a blood-splattered, shot-up nursery?” 

Advertisement

“It didn’t ‘humanize the tragedy,’ as CNN claimed,” they added. “It was gratuitous and callous.”

Robertson similarly described the report as “a truly appalling failure of the most basic journalist ethics.” 

“CNN should conduct an investigation into what happened, appropriately discipline these journalists, and publicly report on what they are going to do to prevent such actions in the future by their employees,” he said. 

“This whole thing leaves me in an uncomfortable situation. I would rather see a proportionate and well-thought out response, and not put all the outrage on CNN.”

It isn’t just the conduct of the CNN journalists that has come under scrutiny throughout this ordeal, though, with Teeranai pointing to the failures of Thai authorities. 

“I don’t see them apologising to the public for not securing the crime scene, for failing in their duty,” he said. “This whole thing leaves me in an uncomfortable situation. I would rather see a proportionate and well-thought out response, and not put all the outrage on CNN.” 

Teeranai said he hoped this incident would see CNN “get their shit together.” But he called Coren a “highly respected” journalist with a “distinguished history and career,” adding that “you can’t judge her based on one incident.” 

Teeranai further cautioned against the incident being used as “ammunition” by authorities against all media in the country. “This is Thailand, there’s nothing the authorities love more than having a justification, backed by the public, to go hard on the media.” 

Advertisement

Some have further questioned the way in which police handled the situation, pointing out that Coren’s filmed and seemingly forced mea culpa resembled a “hostage” video. The anonymous journalist VICE World News spoke with said that the video “goes back to the typical Thai media tropes,” tapping into the “shaming-into-asking-forgiveness culture that’s prevalent not only in Thailand but also in other Asian countries.”

“In this specific case,” they added, “it’s also probably the most elegant solution for the Thai police, as a long, dragged-out procedure would probably not be in their interest.” 

The journalist further suggested that the story has highlighted again the negative side of “parachute journalism,” in which international media outlets deploy foreign reporters to cover major stories. They pointed to another controversial recent episode for CNN in Southeast Asia, in which the outlet faced accusations of irresponsible reporting as they embarked on a military-organised tour of Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of the coup in 2021. 

“Both this episode and [CNN’s] misadventure in Myanmar,” the journalist said, were in part explained by the outlet’s “lack of presence in the region,” which means they often fly in foreign journalists and engage in reporting deemed insensitive to the local context. 

The journalist described CNN’s most recent incident as “a clash of ambitious cutthroat shotgun reporting and Thai lax attitude to rules and regulations.” They also described CNN’s apology, however, as “total bullshit,” asking why no one at the outlet “paused to think if they should be showing this?”  

“My final opinion is that while the outrage and condemnation was valid and necessary,” they said, “it was also a huge distraction from the tragedy and more importantly, any investigation into the root causes of this tragedy.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

Follow Alastair McCready on Twitter.