Laws, Police Visits Create ‘Climate of Fear’ for Thai Media

Legal Matters

BANGKOK — Thai police questioned at least three journalists last week about their reporting on anti-government protests, a move seen by some as an attempt to intimidate the media.

Sirote Klampaiboon, a broadcast journalist for Bangkok station Voice TV, was among those receiving police visits.

Police came to Sirote’s house on January 17, but he wasn’t home.

“They asked my family to open the door and asked for me. My family said I wasn’t there,” Sirote told VOA.

“They looked inside my house, tried to see which way to get in and get out, and asked to take a photo of my family,” Sirote said. “That is the protocol.”

Sirote has regularly covered the anti-government protests taking place across Thailand in the past two years as citizens demand reforms to the Thai monarchy and government.

Shortly after the police visit, Sirote shared a document on social media that showed his face on what appeared to be a wanted list compiled by authorities.

Sirote said that he obtained the document from a source at the police department and that it shows a “watchlist for monthly regular visits.”

He asked police why his name was on the list, but they couldn’t provide a clear answer, he said.

According to local news outlets, two other journalists who report via social media also said police visited their homes.

One of them, Suramet Noyubon, filed a lawsuit over the incident, according to the Thai Enquirer.

Suramet, who reports for Friends Talk, a journalism platform on social media, said two officers talked to his father and accused the reporter of being involved with an anti-government protest group, the Enquirer reported.

A third journalist, who reports for the Facebook-based news group Live Real and was named in a report only as “Admin Ninja,” also said police visited his residence.

Taboo issues

Phansasiri Kularb, a journalism lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, believes the government is trying to stifle smaller media outlets that are reporting on taboo issues in Thailand.

“For smaller media outlets, mostly online ones, journalists continue to report about the demonstration and discussions concerning monarchy reforms,” Phansasiri told VOA via email.

“Last year, the (Office of) Digital Economy and Society, who oversees telecommunication affairs, attempted to clamp down on some of these outlets by issuing an order to close their websites — but was rejected by the court,” she added.

The lecturer believes police raids have become more prevalent under the administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha; however, she said, “It should also be noted that interference and intimidation against the press are not uncommon in Thailand.”

In 2014, Prayuth, who was then head of the Thai army, seized power in a military coup. He was elected prime minister in 2019.

VOA contacted police spokesperson Col. Kissana Phathanacharoen for comment on this report, but he had not responded by the time of publication.

In a separate incident Thursday, police raided Same Sky Books and Magazine, a publishing house in Bangkok.

Rattanathibet police handed Thanapol Eawsakul, the magazine’s editor, a search warrant, and 30 officers searched for materials deemed a threat to national security.

Police were looking for a book that allegedly contains speeches calling for reform of Thailand’s monarchy, according to the Bangkok Post. They didn’t find the book, but officers took Thanapol’s phones and computers.

Climate of fear

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist for Khaosod English who spoke with Thanapol after the raid, believes authorities are trying to intimidate media.

“The raids, particularly at Same Sky Books and Magazine, demonstrate how police and even the court induce the climate of fears. The laws seem to bend and (be) used as a tool of the powers that be,” Pravit told VOA.

“No one who openly and persistently question the regime is free from state surveillance and harassment,” he added.

Police in Bangkok’s Rattanathibet district did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

For Sirote, the police visit this month was not the first time he has been questioned about protest coverage. In November 2020, the journalist was charged with violating an emergency decree by allegedly inciting people to join an anti-government demonstration.

“There was a demonstration. I covered the news, but they (the police) charge me for inciting the people. They said the news on my live (video) of the demonstrations looked like I tried to convince people to join the demonstrations,” he told VOA.

“Covering news of the demonstrations almost every day on the TV platform, I think that makes me a target,” he added.

The case against him is ongoing.

Several people who took part in protests have later faced charges, including under the country’s lèse majesté law, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for insulting or defaming prominent royals.

That law is the reason journalists are cautious when covering sensitive political topics, journalism lecturer Phansasiri said.

“Such a condition prevents the press from further investigating claims and information raised by either protesters, authorities, or other prominent political actors in order to explain and expand the discussion regarding problems and policies that have an impact on the general public,” she said.

“As such, it is fair to say that journalists are working in the climate of fear,” she added.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describes the lèse majesté law as “a weapon of mass deterrence against dissident journalists and bloggers.”

On RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index, Thailand ranks 137th out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest.

Source: Voice of America