Monday, January 13, 2014

Thai Law Bans Journalists Covering Violence To Wear Body Armour

Bangkok protests cause traffic snarl (Pic. Asian Correspondent)


When the police and the anti-government protestors are equally trigger-happy how do journalists protect themselves? By using body armour.

As clashes turn increasingly violent in Bangkok, Thailand, an international media freedom monitor has demanded that the law banning journalists from wearing body armour be withdrawn as fear mounts that they could become targets caught in the midst of clashes.


“While the basic rule of covering conflicts safely by not standing between opposing forces is inviolable, recent clashes in Bangkok have shown that the danger area is apt to change rapidly and with little or no warning,” says John Le Fevre, a guest blogger for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The street protests began late last year stemming from confrontation between the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the opposition Democratic Party. Simmering unrest flared into open clashes when the Shinawatra government attempted to push through legislation providing amnesty to offenders to include the name of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. Billionaire and a former prime minister, Thaksin is accused of corruption and is in exile, but is said to control Thailand’s politics through his sister.

Fearing that clashes were undermining her legitimacy, Yingluck proposed national elections for February, which she is likely to win. The opposition has denounced the move and asked instead for an appointed peoples’ council. The clashes between law enforcement and the opposition Democratic Party has resulted in grave destruction. The confrontation intensified over the weekend as opposition forced a shut down of Bangkok to paralyse the government.

Among victims of this violence are of course journalists. For instance Nick Nostitz, a freelance German journalist was injured on November 26 when he was falsely identified by members of the opposition as a pro-government Red Shirt. There have been other acts of coercion such as threats and exploiting the law to stifle freedom of the media as well.

On December 26, a reporter was hit by a rubber bullet in front of the Thai-Japanese Stadium Din Daeng. He was clearly identifiable by a green armband.

It is in the context of rising anarchy that journalists have asked they be legally permitted to wear body armour. Body armour such as vests and helmets are illegal to be worn by journalists in Thailand. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said this had led to journalists purchasing substandard equipment in the market.

IFJ’s President Jim Boumelha said in a letter to Thailand’s prime minister, “There are also genuine concerns that the planned protests in the capital Bangkok next week are likely to put journalists at an even greater risk for their physical safety. We therefore urge your government to review its stance on body armour and issue permit and possession licenses so that the professional, committed journalists covering the events in Bangkok and across Thailand can legally protect themselves.”

The firsthand account by Le Fevre shows the choices open to individual journalists. “As a younger photojournalist working in areas of conflict, I tended to shy away from using body armor due to the physical strain of the added weight and decreased mobility. However, given the randomness in which firearms have been used by PDRC protesters in this conflict and by the Thai army in 2010, coupled with increasing age and slower mobility, I’ve determined that body armor is essential for my street-level reporting.”

But Le Fevre’s acceptance of reality is little solace in bureaucracy-riddled Thailand. Since he can only procure substandard body armour in Thailand, he was prepared to import it from overseas.

“The Thai Customs Department advised that I would first need to acquire import licenses from three separate government agencies, including two different Ministry of Defense departments. Thailand’s Arms Control Act stipulates that a permit is required to possess such items, with fines and imprisonment penalties for non-compliance,” he writes.

After a endless procedures to negotiate past stubborn officialdom including obtaining a criminal background check Le Fevre remarks, “Until allowances are made for the legal import and possession of body armor, Thai and foreign reporters will be forced to either break Thai law by possessing and wearing the items without a proper permit; play Russian roulette with costly items sent by mail, subject to seizure and forfeiture by the Thai Customs Department; or continue to be exposed to lethal threats while reporting.”

In his letter to the Thai PM, Boumelha addresses this problem: “Your  government should implement a fast-track system so that as many journalists as possible can be safely equipped to perform their work before the planned shutdown announced for 13 January during which clashes are expected.”

Meanwhile violence continued in Bangkok. On January 13, Associated Press reported, “Overnight, an unidentified gunman opened fire on protesters camped near a vast government complex, shooting one man in the neck who was admitted to a nearby hospital, according to the city’s emergency medical services.”

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