Fabio Polenghi was 48 when he was killed in Thailand. He was born in Monza in 1962 and in the words on the website dedicated to his memory “he had chosen early the world as his home and photography as a kaleidoscope to describe its thousand different realities: from fashion to reportage in forgotten places”. . Fabio was killed on May 19th 2010 in Bangkok, hit by a Thai army bullet. As the bravest freelance photojournalists do, he was documenting, alongside the weakest, the final phase of the protests of the anti-government movement, the “Red Shirts”, which for two months had called for early elections.
That 19th May the army with a bloody assault said the final word on weeks of clashes that had already caused dozens of deaths and injuries on both sides. In fact, the army made the final assault on the place where the demonstrators were encamped, in the centre of the capital. Fabio fell, hit in the heart by a bullet and died following an improvised transport on a motorcycle, to hospital. Three other journalists were injured the same morning, a Dutchman, a Canadian and an American.
(Updated by Luciana Borsatti – 3 May 2020)
- 2010 – Fabio Polenghi was killed on May 19th , the last day of the mobilization of the “red shirts” which had begun with a large demonstration on March 14th , when these “red shirts” , in tens of thousands and mostly from the rural north-east, had occupied the centre of Bangkok to demand immediate early elections from the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. Instead, the government proclaiming a state of emergency gave more powers to the army to disperse the protest. In those two months the tension had built up and after the first weeks the street clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement began, with dead and wounded on both sides. The “reds” who occupied the centre of Bangkok, and in particular its commercial heart in the Ratchaprasong district, were viewed with intolerance by the upper middle classes of the capital, close to the army and the monarchy. The demonstrators were instead followers of the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon who had won the elections and ruled since 2001 thanks to his policies of income redistribution towards the countryside. Now he was in self-exile after the coup that had deposed him in 2006, and two years later a conviction for corruption. The leaders of the movement, who were in direct contact with Thaksin, could not reach an agreement with the government that had proposed an election within six months and the violence began. Among the first 26 victims, on April 10th was a Japanese Reuters cameraman, Hiro Muramoto, 43, who was shot in the chest while following the clashes between the army and demonstrators. Mysterious masked and armed “black shirts” were then seen wandering around the areas of the clashes, probably provocateurs of unknown affiliation, to which the army would then always attribute the responsibility for the victims. In mid-May, the army surrounded the extensive camp of the “reds”. At dawn on the 19th , with the tanks demolishing the barricades, there was the final assault in which Fabio was killed, involved in the flight of the protestors while the soldiers shot. The news of his killing arrived shortly before noon, about two hours later came the surrender of the protest leaders. But the diehards of the “reds” did not give up and the incidents continued, also in other areas of the country. In Bangkok dozens of buildings were set on fire, including the Central World, a huge shopping centre where the fire lasted for hours causing a collapse of the historic Siam theatre and the Stock Exchange building. A curfew was decreed in the capital and in about twenty provinces. The news of Polenghi’s killing created dismay and grief in Italy. The President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano declared that “the photojournalist had fallen , with the courage and passion for the profession that honour journalism as a mission of truth and freedom ”. And the President added that he was in contact with the Italian Foreign Office “so that the circumstances of the facts and the responsibilities are rigorously ascertained”. There were reactions also from the President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, from the mayor of Milan Letizia Moratti, from the President of the Chamber Gianfranco Fini and from that of the Italian Senate Renato Schifani, and from the President of the Lombardy Region Roberto Formigoni. “The tragic death of Fabio Polenghi – declared the secretary of the National Press Federation (Fnsi), Franco Sidd – is the last of the unseen reporters who continue to shine light to events in the world that many would like to obscure “. But the civil passion that Polenghi paid with his life is not recognized, he observed, “as it happens more and more often to freelancers, due to the sacrifices it entails”. “He was a conscientious and prudent professional, with the curiosity and talent of great journalists “, says the Order of Journalists of Lombardy. However, adding that in Italy “there is still little consideration” for the work of the many photojournalists who act as “witnesses of our time in the hottest areas of the planet” and who must be recognized with “the professional dignity of a job that needs also protection and guarantees “. From Paris – where Polenghi had exhibited his work several times, at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and at the Expo du livre – Reporters Without Borders recalled that Polenghi was the twelfth media professional who died in the field in 2010.
- 2012 – On the 17th September, the criminal trial for the killing of Fabio Polenghi began at the Bangkok South Criminal Court. At the end of its investigations, the police had established that “a shot from officers on duty” had killed him. In the trial, about twenty witnesses confirmed that the fatal bullet came from the side of the army. The last witness, the Dutch journalist Michel Maas who had himself been wounded , reported that he saw in the telephoto lens the advance of the soldiers towards the group of reporters following the retreat of the “reds”. However a key witness, a journalist who had shot a video showing how Polenghi and others were fleeing the army was excluded.
- 2013 – The ruling of the Court, on May 29th , established that an M16 assault rifle supplied to the army killed Fabio with a high-speed bullet that hit him in the back and pierced his heart. “I am half satisfied – Elisabetta declared to the Ansa News Agency, in the Criminal Court room -. It is not a sentence that puts my heart at peace, it seems to want to move the solution of the problem further”. And she shows willingness to go ahead in the search for the truth, despite the huge expenses already incurred in traveling to Thailand. “The verdict is in any case a first step towards breaking the circle of impunity that characterizes Thailand,” said Shawn Crispin, local representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Even his mother Laura Chiorri, for the first time in Bangkok since the death of her son, tried to be positive: “But I would like to know who killed Fabio, and especially who ordered to shoot”. Other questions remain open about the incident: for example, who was the man with oriental features who immediately reached Fabio lying on the asphalt with his blue motorcycle helmet with the word Press still on his head – and took away his camera with his latest shots. The trial took place while the head of the government Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ex-premier in exile Thaksin, who took office after the success of his party in the elections of the 3rd July 2011. On the 22nd May 2014 there was a new military coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who later became prime minister and was reconfirmed in power in a coalition government after the 2019 elections.
- 2014 – In the meantime, with the death of Elizabeth or “Isa” on April 28th 2014, the memory of her brother had diminished a little also. The journalist Alessandro Ursic, who had followed the entire affair for Ansa – wrote in La Stampa a moving memory of her, “That loss of a courageous reporter, and consequently the laborious legal process that Isa was able to carry on only thanks to her insistence – never entered the Italian collective memory, for various reasons. Thailand is that “land of smiles” a tourist destination for many Italians, but the political divisions that grip it are too far from Italy to leave a mark. Polenghi lost his life during a chaotic urban guerrilla situation, finding himself in the middle of the battle without a flak jacket. And as a nomadic freelance, he did not have a media organization behind him to nourish his memory “.