Foreign Media Protest Thai Violence Against Reporters

The foreign media in Thailand, under criticism from both the royalists and Red Shirts, answered back Thursday with a demand that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva launch an independent probe into attacks on reporters and a condemnation of violence against them during the weeks of confrontation that wracked Bangkok throughout May.

At an emotional meeting on June 2 at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Thailand, members of the Bangkok elites charged the BBC, the Financial Times and CNN and other foreign media with bias and with not providing adequate coverage of the confrontations, irritating journalists who had lost friends and been shot at themselves as well as being subject to lese majeste laws that threatened them with jail for writing anything critical of the monarchy.

Two foreign reporters were killed and at least seven foreign or local reporters were wounded during the violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in the letter to Abhisit, decried the threat to press freedom by government officials and the military, including shutting down any local media that attempted independent reporting.

The letter to Abhisit was signed by Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ as well as Eric G. John, the US Ambassador to Thailand, Don Pramudwinai, the Thai Ambassador to the US, Roby Alampay, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Association, Prasong Lertratanawisute, president of the Thai Journalists Association, Marwaan Macan-Markar, President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand and Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator of the CPJ.

The letter follows:

Dear Prime Minister Abhisit:

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns recent violence against journalists in Thailand, including the shooting deaths of two foreign reporters killed while covering news events. We call on your government to launch independent probes into recent attacks and bring the perpetrators to justice.

On April 10, Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto was shot and killed in Bangkok while filming clashes between+ your government’s security forces and armed United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) antigovernment protesters. A diplomat who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity said that your government has in its possession, but has not publicly released, closed circuit television (CCTV) footage of the area where Muramoto was killed.

Our interviews with journalists also indicated that military and other government agencies have failed to fully cooperate with at least one independent investigation probing the circumstances surrounding Muramoto’s death, by not allowing interviews with soldiers who were near the journalist before he was shot. We call on you to make the CCTV footage and any other relevant information available to investigators, diplomats, and journalists.

We also urge you to launch an independent probe into the killing of Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi, who was fatally shot in the abdomen on May 19 while covering your government’s crackdown on protesters. Some of his colleagues told CPJ that they think he may have been deliberately targeted because he was killed while visibly carrying a camera in an open area with few protesters. After Polenghi’s shooting, some local reporters removed their green armbands that had identified them as journalists, fearing they might be targeted by shooters.

At least seven other foreign and local journalists were shot or injured by grenade shrapnel while covering armed exchanges between security forces and UDD protesters last month, according to news reports. Among those cases are:

· On May 14, France 24 television reporter Nelson Rand was shot three times while attempting to cross the front line between soldiers and protesters, according to news reports. His injuries required emergency surgery and extensive recuperation in the hospital. It is unclear whether he was shot by soldiers or protesters.

· On May 19, freelance Canadian reporter Chandler Vandergrift was seriously injured in a grenade attack while moving with a group of soldiers and journalists near the perimeter of the UDD’s protest site. He was hit by shrapnel in the head and back and required emergency brain surgery. According to a colleague, he is slowly regaining mobility in the right side of his body.

· Dutch journalist Michel Maas, a reporter with Dutch National TV and Radio Netherlands Worldwide, was shot in the shoulder on May 19 while taking cover during a security force offensive against protesters. He told Agence France-Presse from the hospital that he believed he was shot from behind by Thai soldiers because the bullet came from the direction where troops were stationed.

This is a short list of a much wider range of press freedom violations that occurred during the recent political unrest in Thailand . While the media was allowed unfettered access to security force operations aimed at suppressing the UDD, your government has also censored and shut down various Thai media outlets in the name of national security—using discretionary powers from a state of emergency declared on April 7. We are particularly concerned about the detention without charge of Red News editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who, according to Thai news reports, is currently being held at a military installation in Saraburi province. He was detained on May 24, and journalists told CPJ they believe that he is being held on accusations of publishing anti-monarchy materials and violating the country’s lese majeste laws.

The government may be concerned about broadcasts aimed at inciting violence on certain radio stations aligned with the UDD, but we are concerned that your spreading censorship activities have been extended to other news outlets that present news and views that are merely in opposition to your government. In particular, we note your government’s orders to shut down independent news Web site Prachatai and censor state broadcast media coverage of the May 19 military crackdown.

We likewise condemn UDD protester attacks on local media, including the arson attacks on Channel 3’s headquarters in Bangkok that required scores of reporters and staff members to be evacuated from the building by helicopter. And we are carefully investigating reports we have received from journalists and rights groups that UDD gunmen may have deliberately targeted and shot foreign journalists in a bid to discredit your government internationally.

Prime Minister, you have maintained throughout these turbulent times in Thailand that your government is committed to upholding the rule of law and is endeavoring to achieve reconciliation through democratic processes. At a press conference with foreign reporters on May 29, you acknowledged that the media should not be targeted in the course of your country’s political conflict and expressed your belief that journalists are entitled to do their jobs without fear of reprisal.

One meaningful step toward affirming those statements would be to instruct parliament to establish a commission that would ensure an independent investigation into recent attacks on the press. The inquiry should be made public, and, where appropriate, cases should be referred for legal prosecution. Another step would be to better guarantee the security of journalists in any future street conflicts between troops and protesters. Until then, your government's commitment to press freedom will be in doubt.

We thank you for your attention to these important issues and look forward to your reply.