How Not to Talk to an Ape Smuggler (NYT)

How Not to Talk to an Ape Smuggler

http://nyti.ms/2yun8B3

Right as I was climbing into bed, my phone rang. I thought it was my wife.

“Jeff,” a man said, “it’s Tom.”

My mind raced. My mouth went dry. Now what was I supposed to do?

The Times has a clear policy that we don’t misrepresent ourselves and pretend not to be reporters. Our feeling is that we shouldn’t lie to find the truth. That said, we can witness events without announcing we are journalists. This happens, for example, on military embeds when we stick with the troops and stay in the background. We don’t explain to everyone (say, suspects who have been arrested) that we are reporters. We do if we’re asked, but the subject often does not come up. There are usually more important things happening at the time.

Operating under this same principle, I had flown to Thailand to essentially embed with Mr. Stiles and Thai undercover officers as they carried out a sting on Tom, who had offered to sell many more apes and was emerging as a major dealer. My role was to linger in the background and take notes. Since I couldn’t misrepresent myself, that meant I couldn’t ask any questions or insert myself in any way.

But suddenly Tom was calling me directly. He had a buttery voice and excellent diction, with a light Malaysian or Indonesian accent. He was unfailingly polite, finishing off nearly every sentence with “sir.” Eager to find Mr. Stiles, he asked me what the plan was for the “kids” — his code for the baby orangutans.

“The kids are really active, sir. Get ready for some sleepless nights!” Tom laughed.

I laughed, too, a shallow, fake laugh. As quickly as I could, I got off the phone, essentially saying nothing. I hadn’t lied. But as a journalist, it was extremely frustrating.

This story, after all, was an attempt to find out Tom’s real identity, how his business worked, and what made illicit dealers like him tick. For a moment, I had a direct channel to the ape underworld. But had I asked him anything, I would have had to identify myself as a reporter. That might have jeopardized the entire sting.

By avoiding a conversation, I tried to walk a careful line in a tricky situation. The bust went ahead and ended in a Bangkok parking lot, though somewhat differently than we expected.

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via NYT http://nyti.ms/2gVZ2VB

November 4, 2017 at 10:27AM