Police Violence Against Thailand’s Journalists: The Risks of Covering Pro-Democracy Protests

Many protests in Thailand criticised and demanded a new constitution, the cabinet’s resignation, and monarchy reform in the last few years. The government is trying to suppress it by using several rules and police institutions as their weapons against activists and protesters, including journalists who cover it.

Trigger warning: police brutality

Thailand television journalist Pichitsak Gannakham remembers clearly the situation when he and some journalists covered a Thai pro-democracy protest, the Din Daeng protest, in August 2021.

It was raining outside, so they sheltered themselves in a building near the protest. There were around ten journalists. 

Abruptly, the rows of riot police walked toward them and started shooting rubber bullets. Some journalists tried to show their press armbands so the police would notice they were not protesters. 

“If it were a single shot, I’d understand, but it was continuous firing,” Pichitsak Gannakham says in an interview with Matichon Online.

Another story comes from a citizen journalist, Laila Tahae, who also experienced violence from a police officer. It happened when she covered a protest in Bangkok in August 2021.

During the protest, Laila took a picture of the police officer arresting people in a small alley in downtown Bangkok. The police officer saw it and immediately hit her.

“He swung his baton at me. It hit almost all parts of my camera. It smashed my lens filter, and the baton slightly scraped my shoulder,” Laila tells Prachatai.

Laila continued the reporting and photographed her surroundings, but she became more careful. She would stop taking pictures whenever she went too close to a police officer.

“Another reporter nearby who had an official armband and equipment also got told (by the police officer) to stop (taking pictures).”

Since the popular uprising against Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2020, various groups of protesters have demanded a new constitution, the cabinet’s resignation, and monarchy reform. To silence the protests, the government used laws such as the Lese Majeste Law, the Sedition Law, the Computer Crimes Act, and the Emergency Decree

Chulalongkorn University researcher Phansasiri Kularb recorded at least 34 cases of police violence against journalists between 2020 and 2021. She raised three main issues regarding press freedom in Thailand, including the limited records of violence against media workers and the inefficiency of investigations into those cases.

Under the use of the COVID-19 Emergency Decree in Thailand—from March 2020 to September 2022—there was a rise in police violence against media workers and pro-democracy activists. Thailand’s government used the Emergency Decree to criminalise over 1,400 people, even after they revoked the law.

With hundreds injured and at least one civilian death in protests throughout September 2021, field reporters and photographers are not safe from the less-lethal weapons used indiscriminately by the police.

A crowd of journalists huddling to cover a protest. Photography by Chalit Ratapana.

Protests in Thailand

After a coup toppled an elected government in 2014, the junta established their own version of the constitution. It ruled with absolute power until the general election in 2019 when the Future Forward Party (FFP), a new progressive opposition, won 80 seats in the 500-seat house. 

In 2020, the junta-appointed constitutional court issued a verdict which dissolved FFP. The dissolution of the party was seen as politically motivated. It triggered waves of protests across the country from FFP supporters,  pro-democracy groups, and the younger generation of Thais. 

The Thai people took to the streets to resist the junta in various ways, ranging from the academia-inclined Ratsadon movement to the more rebellious Thalugaz born in Bangkok’s inner city.

Thalugaz was a series of unorganised protests, usually occurring at night, around Din Daeng from August to October 2021. Thalugaz means “through the tear gas”. It is also a tribute to “Thalufah” or “through the sky,” another prominent activist group within the pro-democracy and reformist movement.

Thalugaz protesters are known for their explosive political expression. They moved around on motorcycles and launched fireworks at the police who were defending the Prime Minister’s home.

The police would gradually employ more extreme measures to put the protest to an end: mounted officers shooting rubber bullets from speeding bikes, riot police launching tear gas canisters into apartment buildings, and patrols occupying the entire area with checkpoints.

The press and citizen journalists called it “Battlefield Din Daeng.”

The Din Daeng protests happened when the Emergency Decree was still active. 

Prime Minister and Junta Leader Prayut Chan-o-cha enacted the Emergency Decree to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections in Thailand on 23 March 2020. Prachatai’s editor, Tewarit, said the government simply used the pandemic as a justification to allow crackdowns.

“The Thai state did not want any protests to happen in the first place.”

He explained that this is why the police prioritised dispersing each protest. They also saw the press, who reported on and live-streamed the protests, as a threat because their publications could trigger more protests.

“Especially at Din Daeng, the police have obstructed the protests and tried to disperse the protests without caring where the water cannon, tear gas, or rubber bullets would hit (people), no matter if they’re idling protesters, active protesters, bystanders, or reporters,” he says.

Journalists who covered protests also had limited access to safety kits. Prachatai journalist Sorawut Wongsaranon said some journalists were buying whatever was available in e-commerce shops, even when they were unsure about the quality. 

Motorcycle helmets for head protection, paint respirators for protection against tear gas, airsoft vests for body protection, and construction safety goggles for eye protection. None of them was effective, but it was better than nothing.

“Mainly, (we need) protective equipment that’s up to standards,” he says.

But they didn’t have many options.

Journalists and protesters and their lack of protective gears. Photography by Chalit Ratapana.

Furthermore, it is illegal for journalists to use bullet-resistant vests. Only several institutions are allowed to use it, including the police and military. 

Some news outlets, like Prachatai, could not send their staff to protests, like Din Daeng, because they did not have proper safety equipment against rubber bullets. Consequently, the editorial prioritised reporting on the overall situation, gathering information from various sources such as citizen journalists or civil society organisations (CSOs) data.

Citizen journalists played a crucial role in filling the information gap at that time. One of the most well-known citizen journalists is Opal. He is the journalist behind the “Ratsadon News” live-streaming channel. Opal captured extensive footage of police violence and broadcast it on his channel. 

However, citizen journalists are more vulnerable to legal consequences than journalists from registered media. Most of them also did not have press armbands.

“If we’re not protected as (registered) press, at least we should be protected as citizens with the right to present news and information,” says Opal.

The police routinely checked reporters’ press identifications in a protest. Since citizen journalists didn’t have official permits, the police usually accused them of either breaking the curfew or being protesters in disguise.

Prachatai’s reporter, Nuttaphol, said Prachatai’s editorial team also had a debate over who needed to wear the press armband and who did not.

“I think everyone deserves protection whether they report for a formal organisation or not… They all should be protected,” Nuttaphol says.

At the end of the Din Daeng protests, at least five citizen journalists were charged with Emergency Decree violations. 

Based on the same law, Thailand’s government ordered its ministry to scrutinise and suspend broadcasts by several online media platforms, including Prachatai. They claimed those media breached the law by disseminating “false information”.

Many organisations condemned Thailand’s government’s move. In October 2022, the court rejected the government’s attempt to silence the media.

“We went to court and made our stand until the court dismissed the orders,” Tewarit concludes.

A row of well-protected riot police officers standing guard. Photography by Chalit Ratapana.

The Violence Continues

Two months after the government lifted the Emergency Decree, police violence against journalists persisted. This occurred during Thailand’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2022.

An anti-APEC coalition of pro-democracy activists, environmentalists, farmers, unionists, and leftists marched through Bangkok to protest the junta’s carbon-crediting economic policies.

The police initially blocked the street, claiming they were unarmed. A few minutes later, more armed police came with shields, tear gas, and rubber bullet guns. The situation escalated quickly.

Some police officers started beating people with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets., not only targeting protesters but also journalists

The police arrested a journalist and left many journalists injured. Similar to what happened in Din Daeng, most of the journalists were wearing blue press armbands when the police pushed and beat them.

In response, several media outlets, such as The Matter and The Isaan Record, published statements condemning the police violence against their journalists.

“A journalist of The Matter was physically assaulted by a police officer with a baton,” reads a part of the statement by The Matter.

According to The Matter’s statement, their journalist wore a press armband. The fact that they identified themselves as a journalist did not prevent the police officer from assaulting them. The police officer continued to kick the journalist’s head even after the journalist fell to the ground.

In June 2023, the Thai National Human Rights Commission published a report. The report indicated that the police crackdown had impeded the rights to assembly and freedom of the press. They described it as an attempt to prevent coverage of the protest by assaulting field journalists on duty, which was deemed “contrary to the international laws and standards”.

The Thai Journalists Association (TJA) demanded an investigation of the police who were involved in the crackdown. The TJA also affirmed in the statement that the press has the right to report information, and any obstruction of the process violates the public’s right to information.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Thailand’s press freedom ranked 106 out of 180 worldwide (2023). One of the main challenges is to cover protests. The media industry’s most vulnerable groups are field journalists.

“If the news organisation is not ready to provide these (protections), they have to decide whether the field reporters should pull out and avoid the risk entirely,” Nuttaphol says.

There’s no press freedom under the current law in Thailand. Journalists are risking their lives on the field. Citizen journalists are vulnerable to criminalisation.

Nuttaphol emphasised,

“I want the government to understand that thorough and independent reporting will help the public to understand the conflict better, what the problems are, what the demands are.”

A crowd of people holding a candlelight vigil for their fallen comrades. Photography by Chalit Ratapana.

What’s Next?

The political situation in Thailand remains fragile even when protests are not filling the streets and the police are not using the Emergency Decree. We always welcome your acts of solidarity in support of the pro-democracy movement and the independent press.

This story is a part of Media Freedom Voices stories that discuss the media freedom condition of each country across Southeast Asia. You can read our other features about media freedom and discrimination and violence against journalists:

Eroding Press Freedom: Media Crackdown in Cambodia

The move of Cambodia’s former prime minister, Hun Sen, to shut an independent media, Voice of Democracy (VOD), ahead of the 2023 general elections reflects the 2017 media crackdown playbook. Along with the intimidation and harassment against independent journalists, it erodes Cambodia’s press freedom and democracy.

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