Belgian journalist detained by Thai police; warned against plan to interview activist

Belgian journalist Kris Janssens was detained by Thai immigration police early on Thursday morning (3 October) and held for around five hours at the Immigration Bureau on Suan Phlu Road. He was warned by officers not to pursue his plan to interview activist Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich or to report on Thai politics, or there would be consequences.

Kris Janssens (left) with Anurak Jeantawanich (right) 
(Source: Anurak Jeantawanich)

Janssens said that five immigration officers stopped him as he was leaving his guesthouse at around 6.45 am on Thursday (3 October). They asked to see his passport, but did not really give him any explanation. Janssens went back to his room to retrieve his passport, and the officers went with him. He said that they took everything that was in the room and asked him to follow them.

Janssens was taken to the immigration office on Suan Phlu Road, and was told to wait there for a high-ranking officer to come to question him. The officer, who did not speak English and required an interpreter to assist in the interrogation, asked Janssens what he was doing in Bangkok, and finally told him that they wanted to warn him that Anurak is trying to get him involved in his “political organization” and in “illegal activities”.

Janssens was advised not to pursue his plan to interview Anurak, and was told that he should leave the country immediately. However, as he has prepaid, non-refundable bookings for his accommodation and return flight on 12 October, he was allowed to stay on the condition that he does not meet Anurak and that he does not get involved in politics. Janssens said that the officer told him that if he does, he will “get in trouble”. He was concerned that the officers would take his computer or his recording equipment, and that he would be put on a blacklist and therefore would not be able to return to Thailand.

He was finally released at around noon on Thursday. Throughout the five hours that he was held in the immigration office, Janssens was not allowed to contact the Embassy of Belgium or anyone else. The officers took away his mobile phone and did not allow him access to it until he was released. He said that he asked several times whether he could send a message to people he had planned to meet to let them know that he would not be meeting them, but he was not allowed to do so. Janssens contacted the Belgian Embassy immediately after he was released. The Belgian ambassador met with him on Thursday afternoon and offered to let him stay at the ambassador’s residence, but Janssens did not feel that it was necessary.

Janssens previously planned to interview Anurak about the physical assault he suffered, and the interview would take place at the scene of the attack. Anurak was also going to put him in touch with other activists. Anurak told Prachatai that Janssens had scheduled an interview with him about the physical assault he suffered and about his campaign on the constitutional amendments. He said that he is still under surveillance by the military and the police, and that he told the police of the interview plan after he received a call on Wednesday (2 October), but did not think that they would go as far as to detain Janssens.

Janssens, who is based in Phnom Penh, said that nothing like this had ever happened to him before. On his previous visit to Thailand in November, he covered the protests Anurak organized in Pattaya, but while there were police officers present at the protests, he was never stopped or questioned. He said that while working in Cambodia, he was stopped once as he and a Cambodian journalist were entering a military base, only for ten minutes. He was also stopped in Myanmar, because the authorities found that he was reporting but did not have a journalist visa, but he was still allowed to do his scheduled interviews. He said that he was never detained for a long time, while also not being allowed to contact anyone, or to be taken by as many as five officers from his guesthouse.

Jonathan Head, the BCC’s Southeast Asia Correspondent, told Prachatai that he is not aware of a foreign journalist being threatened in this way before. Other foreign journalists in Bangkok also told Janssens that this “quite exceptional,” especially because he had merely in contact with Anurak and hadn’t even met him or conducted the interview.

“I think they wanted to give me a warning,” Janssens said, “because they were very polite and not aggressive, but the words ‘you could be in trouble if you continue doing what you’re doing’, I think this means ‘if you do what we say, then there is no problem, but if you don’t, then you might be in trouble’.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) issued a statement on Friday afternoon (4 October) saying that they are “very concerned” about Janssens’ detention.

“It is deeply disturbing when authorities anywhere try to dictate who foreign journalists should or should not interview. They are perfectly within their rights to challenge reporting they believe to be unbalanced, but preventing a professional journalist from interviewing someone is an unwarranted infringement on media freedom,” said the FCCT statement. “The idea that a journalist might be induced into committing an illegal act merely by talking to an activist is non-sensical. The Thai government should continue to allow foreign journalists to report on political issues here without facing threats of unspecified legal action.”