Attacks on the Press 2010: Thailand

Top Developments
• Using emergency decree, government blocks access to thousands of websites.
• CPJ faults government, protesters for lethal violence against media.

Key Statistic
2: Journalists killed during violent clashes between security forces and protesters in Bangkok.

Armed clashes between anti-government protesters and state security forces resulted in 91 deaths and more than 1,800 injuries, a toll that deepened Thailand’s debilitating five-year-old political crisis. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva invoked an emergency decree to contain the protests and employed its discretionary powers to sharply curb press freedom, which included far-ranging Internet censorship.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
Partisan Journalism
And the Cycle
of Repression

Country Summaries
Sri Lanka
Other nations

Two foreign journalists–Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto and Italian freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi–were among the fatalities, while at least nine other reporters were injured in crossfire between troops and protesters. In April and May, areas of Bangkok became armed combat zones as supporters of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resorted to violence in their bid to topple Abhisit’s elected government. The conflict was rooted in Thaksin’s ouster in a 2006 military coup and subsequent court decisions that disbanded two of his political parties.

In a special report issued in July, CPJ faulted both the government and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group for engaging in lethal recklessness that contributed to the deaths and injuries of reporters. CPJ found the government had done little to investigate the shootings and had obstructed private investigations launched by concerned news organizations, foreign embassies, and family members.

Muramoto was shot while covering the first armed clashes, on April 10, in Bangkok’s old royal quarter. While positioned with military forces that evening, the journalist had captured on film a grenade attack that killed and severely wounded a number of troops. He was later seen on the side of the UDD’s red-shirted protesters, four of whom were photographed by the local Daily News carrying his limp body away from the front lines at around 9 p.m.

Reuters’ own investigation found that Muramoto “was shot almost certainly by a high-velocity bullet fired at street level while standing in a street between Thai troops and red-shirt protesters.” A summary of Reuters’ findings reviewed by CPJ said that Muramoto “was not shot at close range” and that “both troops and protesters had high-velocity weapons at the time of Hiro’s death and there were casualties on both sides that night.”

In November, the government acknowledged that security forces could have killed Muramoto and said it would conduct an investigation. “Since there was possible involvement by government officers, we have to start from square one by letting police investigate further,” Tharit Pengdit, director general of the Department of Special Investigation, told a news conference.

Polenghi was killed by gunfire on the morning of May 19 while reporting on military operations to crack down on UDD demonstrators who had erected a barricaded protest site in a luxury shopping and hotel district in the capital. Polenghi was wearing a blue helmet with the word “Press” written across the front and back, and a green armband clearly indicating that he was a working journalist at the time of the shooting.

Troops appeared to be firing indiscriminately in the area, according to Bradley Cox, a documentary filmmaker who was working near Polenghi and was wounded himself by gunfire that morning. “I don’t know who shot me or Fabio, but if the military was trying to shoot red shirts, there was no one around us,” Cox told CPJ. “Soldiers were firing at anything or anybody.”

Other journalists sustained life-threatening injuries. France 24 contributor Nelson Rand was struck by multiple gunshots to the wrist, leg, and abdomen while covering a battle between troops and protesters on May 14 outside of the city’s Lumpini Park. Video footage showed that the gunfire came from a position where troops were stationed at the time. Two UDD protesters drove Rand on a motorcycle to a nearby hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery.

Chandler Vandergrift, a freelance reporter on assignment for the Toronto Star, suffered near-fatal injuries after being hit by grenade shrapnel in the back and head on the afternoon of May 19. The journalist was positioned with a group of soldiers at the time of the grenade attack and fell immediately unconscious from his injuries, he told CPJ. He said that it took six weeks for some of the two dozen shrapnel wounds on his back to stop bleeding, and that the grenade’s blast left him completely deaf in his left ear. Vandergrift said he believed that the grenade that hit him was fired by black-clad armed protesters, whom he perceived to be targeting troops, not journalists.

On May 13, New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller narrowly escaped injury while interviewing a rogue soldier who led the UDD’s armed guards. The soldier was shot in the head and killed in mid-conversation along the perimeter of the protest site. According to his New York Times report, Fuller was standing just a couple of feet away when he heard a “loud bang” and the fatigues-wearing soldier fell to the ground.

On June 7, CPJ sent a letter to Abhisit to express concerns about the deteriorating security situation for journalists covering the conflict. Sek Wannamethee, deputy chief of mission at the Thailand Embassy in Washington, said in a written reply that broad investigations were under way into the deadly violence, including a quasi-independent fact-finding committee investigating the fighting led by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon.

But doubts emerged about the committee led by Khanit. He was quoted in the local press on June 12 as saying that “there will be no pointing fingers in the [committee’s] work plan” and that “placing blame was less important than promoting forgiveness.” CPJ noted in a statement that past government-appointed committees tasked with investigating alleged state-sponsored rights abuses in Thailand had consistently failed to result in prosecutions.

By year’s end, no one had been held accountable for the deaths or injuries. CPJ’s investigation found instances of official obstruction of privately led inquiries into both the Muramoto and Polenghi killings. CPJ sources said the military refused to make available for interviews the soldiers known to be near Muramoto at the time of the shooting. The government also failed to disclose closed-circuit footage showing activities in the area where the journalist was killed.

Polenghi’s sister, Elisabetta, told CPJ she felt threatened after meeting in July with security officials tasked with investigating her brother’s death. She said that after she presented new video evidence of his death to the police Department of Special Investigation, agents arrested the UDD supporter who provided her with the video footage. On July 30, CPJ held a joint press conference with Elisabetta Polenghi in Bangkok to urge the government to focus its efforts on investigating the shooting.

After imposing a state of emergency on April 7, Abhisit’s government used its discretionary powers to close down a satellite-television news station known as D-Station, along with at least 25 community radio stations, four print publications, and thousands of websites and pages aligned with the UDD. The shuttering of the four print publications, including Voice of Taksin and Red News, represented the first government-ordered closing of print media since military rule in the mid-1970s.

Government officials justified censorship on national security grounds, claiming UDD-aligned media had incited hatred that contributed to the unrest. In comments and speeches, Abhisit pointed to a live D-Station broadcast in which a protester called for the prime minister’s assassination, and told journalists on April 25 that the UDD had used provincial community radio stations as “command centers” for mobilizing supporters rather than broadcasting news.

The crackdown extended beyond UDD-aligned media to independent news sites and opinion forums on the Internet, often on the grounds that they published material critical of the monarchy. The extent of the censorship was difficult to track because the emergency decree exempted the government from issuing written orders to Internet service providers. In a December report, Thailand’s iLaw Project said the government ordered the blocking of 38,868 websites and Web pages for publishing content critical of the country’s royal family. In all, the group said, the government ordered roughly 44,000 web addresses blocked during 2010.

Thailand’s royal family was shielded from public criticism by some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, which carried possible three- to 15-year prison terms for convictions. On June 15, the cabinet approved the creation of a new cyber-crime agency tasked specifically with stamping out online criticism of the monarchy, Agence France-Presse reported. The government also posted billboards with a phone number urging Internet users to report “improper” websites to authorities.

Certain journalists were targeted. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of the independent Prachatai news website, was charged in March with alleged violations of the 2007 Computer Crime Act. The charges stemmed from comments posted by a reader that were critical of Queen Sirikit. As part of the state-of-emergency crackdown, authorities blocked local access to Prachatai in April. The site was moved to servers outside of the country, and an alternate site became accessible later in the year.

Chiranuch was arrested a second time, on September 24, as she arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport after returning from an international Internet freedom conference in Hungary. Her arrest stemmed from comments posted to Prachatai in 2008 that allegedly violated computer crime and lese majeste laws, according to a posting on Prachatai that day. Free on bail in late year, she faced a possible sentence of 50 years in prison on multiple charges related to content posted to her website. Her trial on the first set of charges was scheduled to begin in February 2011.

Several other politically oriented websites–those devoted to political prisoners and censorship, as well as the document disclosure site Wiki-Leaks–were blocked by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. Visitors calling up the addresses of the censored sites found either a Thai-language message citing reasons of national security or a disingenuous error message. WikiLeaks was blocked in August, apparently in response to the site’s publication of a comprehensive ministry list of websites and pages it had blocked.

With the pervasive censorship of websites, many Internet users gravitated toward social networking sites such as Facebook to monitor news and engage in online political discussions. Even that space wasn’t safe for unfettered political debate: In May, authorities arrested Wipas Raksakulthai, a 37-year-old businessman, for posting comments on his Facebook page that were considered offensive to the monarchy.