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Reuters is doing some serious disciplining of some of its Asia staff after remarks in an ill-fated chatroom discussion during the coverage of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Indonesia bureau chief David Fox was fired and senior editor Andrew Marshall admonished for the comments. It's not the first time this month that the news agency has made headlines for its seemingly draconian labor practices.

A post on the Reuters employee blog, The Baron, picked up today by Boing Boing, gives Marshall's account:

His comment about radiation levels in Tokyo ... “Is your hair starting to fall out?” – was directed to a bald colleague in Japan.

It was in the middle of the night on the Asia desk in Singapore where he was alone on the overnight shift that had been started after the Japan crisis hit.

There were about 25 to 30 people in the Reuters messaging chat room created specifically for journalists involved in the Japan disaster story. All were Reuters journalists, mostly in other regions.

“I was feeling slightly miserable alone on the Asiadesk in the middle of the night watching images of death and suffering on multiple TV screens … I thought my message might raise a few smiles, and I know from extensive experience working in war zones and disaster areas how important this is for team morale,” he said.

Somewhere in that same chat, David Fox made what has been described only as a "crude remark" that was bad enough to get him fired. No information has come out as to the nature of that remark but it must have been a fair sight worse than the radiation crack.

Firing employees for being inappropriate can be, well, appropriate. But Reuters had a brush with U.S. regulators earlier this month regarding a far less cut-and-dry disciplinary action. On April 6, the National Labor Relations Board filed a civil complaint against the news agency for illegally disciplining an employee over a Twitter posting.

Environmental reporter Deborah Zabarenko, who is also the head of the Newspaper Guild at the agency, sent the tweet in response to a supervisor's call for suggestions on how to make Reuters work better. Zabarenko wrote, "One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild members."

“The next day the bureau chief called me at home,” Ms. Zabarenko said in an interview. “He told me that Reuters had a policy that we were not supposed to say something that would damage the reputation of Reuters News or Thomson Reuters. I felt kind of threatened. I thought it was some kind of intimidation.”

The NLRB thought it was inappropriate as well, in that it violated Zabarenko's right to "engage in concerted, protected activity with co-workers to improve working conditions." There's no word yet on the complaint's progress, but it's clear overall that things at Reuters are a little tense right now. Just don't joke to relieve the pressure, guys.

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