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SEAPA Statement: A dangerous turn?

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) expresses deep concern over incidents at the protests yesterday, 25 November, which saw media being attacked for their role in reporting unfolding incidents in Thailand.

Simultaneous rallies were held in front of five state-owned TV stations protesting the alleged unfair coverage by the media of demonstrations, which have intensified since the beginning of November.

At midday, a German freelance photojournalist was attacked by protesters after being singled out in a crowd by the protest leader who urged rally guards to “chase him away”. Nick Nostitz was slightly injured in the incident, and was saved from further harm after police led him away from his attackers.

We must specifically call out the irresponsible action of protest leader Jumpol Chumsai, a resigned Democrat MP, whose pinpointing of Nostitz triggered the assault. It is doubly serious that Nostitz was wearing an armband that clearly identifies him as a journalist, in keeping with measures adopted by the larger media community on how to keep safe. In a highly charged political atmosphere such as a protest, calling on protesters to “chase” a specific person believed belonging to an opposing camp is almost a direct incitement to violence.

On the other hand, the protests in front of TV stations can be interpreted as a direct coercion for media to report matters according to protesters’ views. These are no different from pressures faced by journalists from media owners and the state to slant news in their favour. It really does not matter from which group the pressure is coming, what is important is that these acts ultimately harm the professional media from keeping the public informed and channeling diverse political views.

SEAPA fears these incidents indicate a growing intolerance in society as tension builds up among political actors, who continue to threaten not just press freedom and professionalism in the country, but also on a larger scale freedom of opinion and expression among the public.

SEAPA hopes that these two incidents do not mark a dangerous turn in the protests that endanger media freedom and freedom of expression. We must emphasize that such incidents are not isolated in the context of Thailand’s ongoing political turmoil, having been committed by both sides of the divide since 2006 – and not just to the media.

It is quite unsettling that these incidents occurred immediately after a global campaign to stop impunity for violence against the media and free expression. These incidents demonstrate the urgent need for the Thai state to take responsibility for acts of violence against civilians including journalists and for taking a proactive role to protect the independence and professionalism of the press.

We fully support the statement of colleagues at the Thai Journalists Association – a SEAPA member – for calling on both sides not to obstruct the work of the media, and for journalists to exercise their professed duty of keeping the public informed amidst the tense situation.