A year after May 19 riots, journalists still face safety concerns and impunity issues

[Original title: A year after May 19 riots, journalists in Thailand still face safety concerns and impunity issues]

Exactly one year ago today, the Thai military launched its dispersal operations against the Red Shirt protest rally, which had been going on for three months. The media became a casualty in the conflict, which saw 92 people, including two photographers, being killed and many others wounded.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance, together with the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), ISRA Institute and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) hosted a forum on 16 May 2011 to reflect on the year that has passed and what lessons could be drawn from the covering the clashes.

SEAPA Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said the forum was an opportunity for the media and civil society to have a dialogue about the challenges confronting the media, and the lessons that can be drawn from the experience last year as well as trends in the Southeast Asian region.

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Mr. Red Batario of INSI (left) and K. Korkhet Chantalertluk of TV Thai (right) talk about journalists’ safety in covering conflict situations while Ms. Gayathry Venkiteswaran of SEAPA act as moderator.

The forum gathered together 10 speakers from the media, civil society and academe to reflect on the implications of last year’s political events to Thai media.

Of paramount concern is the safety of journalists in covering conflict. Of the 92 people killed over the three months in which the protest rallies ran its course, two were foreign journalists. Several Thai media workers and foreign journalists were also wounded by gunshots and grenade shrapnel.

TV Thai News Director Korkhet Chantalertluk, who had been out in the streets covering the clashes between the military and the protesters a year ago, said many Thai journalists did not expect the level of violence to be that bad.

“Thai media never experienced this kind of conflict before. Many journalists have no experience covering such an event. Nobody expected the heavy use of automatic rifles and grenades,” he said.

TJA President Chavarong Limpattamapanee agreed, observing that the rallies last year “were not just peaceful gatherings but had a hidden political agenda, backed by an armed militia”.

Media executives likewise said such kind of violence could only be expected in the border areas or in the southern Thai provinces. Hence, many media outlets and journalists were caught flat-footed by the intensity of the violence.

Though bulletproof vests and helmets were distributed among the Thai journalists, but these were inadequate and could not be easily procured at short notice.

Speaking on the threats to the foreign photographers who were killed, Chavarong said it could be that they could not anticipate the extent and danger of the clashes, and that the Thai journalists were more in tune with what was going on in the ground.

He said that according to his sources, slain Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi might have been mistaken for a Red Shirt militia (called ‘Black Shirts’ or ‘Ronin’) because he was wearing a black outfit over military-style camouflage pants.

He added that the Thai journalists received a tip from Deputy Chief of Staff at the 2nd Infantry Division Col. Romklao Thuwatham, that the situation threatened to get worse and he advised them not to stay near the Red Shirt lines. This unit led the troops that quelled the Red Shirt protesters in 2009 and again on that night of 10 April 2010.  Romklao was later killed by shrapnel from 40mm grenades reportedly fired by Black Shirts.

Safety issues

International News Safety Institute (INSI) Regional Coordinator for Asia Pacific Red Batario observed that the Thai news media were unprepared to cover a volatile event like last year’s riots.

He added that there was a lack of safety policy or protocols among the journalists. There was also a need for the media workers to understand better the character of the opposing sides.

He stressed that the best way to ensure the safety of a journalist while covering conflict is to adopt a “more responsible and sober reporting.”

TJA and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) organized safety training in 2010 conducted by INSI. Thai TV’s Korkhet, who participated in the training, said he learned a lot of crucial lessons on staying safe while covering conflicts.

These included risk awareness, safety protocols, hostile environment training, emergency basic life support, trauma awareness and peer support, Internet security, risk mapping, among others.

Korkhet was disappointed, however, that only a handful of journalists among the many who showed interest, turned up for training. He said many Thai journalists still relied on their own instincts when it came to guaranteeing their personal safety, instead of undergoing a safety training.

All the speakers agreed that the most effective way of ensuring a journalists’ safety in the coverage of conflict situations is to remain professional and at the same time, avoid taking unnecessary risks. As Batario noted, “no story is worth dying for”.

Impunity

The issue of impunity cropped up as the suspects behind the killing and wounding of journalists last year remained free.

Human Rights Watch Consultant for Thailand Sunai Phasuk explained that impunity in Thailand is perpetrated through the help of special laws like the emergency decree and others that were enacted during the time of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. These laws, he said, offered protection to government agents who committed violent acts against civilians during emergency situations or exempt them from accountability for their actions.

On the other hand, other laws like Article 112 of the Penal Code (which covers lese majeste) and the Computer Crime Act grant excessive powers to the government in suppressing dissent under the aegis of protecting national security.

Sunai said as a result of these laws, the Truth Commission for National Reconciliation found it hard to gain access to information needed to establish the truth behind the death and injuries of civilians, including the Thai and foreign media, during the violent protest rallies last year.

Meanwhile, the failure to get the relevant facts on these deaths might deny justice to the victims.

The Truth Commission for National Reconciliation also had difficulty unearthing more data on the killings of the two foreign journalists and TJA’s Chavarong noted that state agencies gave minimum cooperation to the commission.

Royal Thai Police’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) Director-General Tharit Pengdith was reported as saying recently that unless new evidence on the death of Hiro Muramoto is unearthed within the year, the case would be closed. The DSI earlier said in March that there are no strong indications that soldiers shot Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto on 10 April 2010. Civil society groups, however, are concerned that there might be a whitewash.

On the issue of impunity, Sunai recommended the following actions:

1) Political parties must pledge to resist impunity and be committed to media reform in the electoral campaign and bring justice to those killed or mistreated during the riots last year.

2) Civil society and the media must be united to challenge these laws in courts to determine whether they contravene the Constitution.

3) Public awareness about the dangers of impunity must be increased.

4) Various sectors should demand for the State’s obligation in ensuring journalists’ safety.

5) Use the Official Information Act to demand access to  information from the State.

Batario of INSI, on the other hand, shared some insights on how to pressure government agencies to pursue impunity cases with impartiality.

He said there should be efforts to raise awareness and build support through public campaigns and protest movements, dialogues with the government, support from the international press community and other sectors (human rights groups, NGOs, the church or religious groups), strong local media alliances and better media-citizen engagement. On the last, Batario explained that a journalists’ best protection are citizens who understand and appreciate the role of media in society.

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About SEAPA

SEAPA (http://www.seapabkk.org/) is the only regional organization with the  specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom andResponsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).

SEAPA also has partners in Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.

For inquiries, please contact us at: seapa (at) seapa (dot) org, or call +662 243 5579.

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