Police detain a pro-democracy protester during a demonstration headed towards the residence of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok on Feb. 28. (Photo: AFP)
The arrest of a working journalist during a police crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators highlights the nature of threats to freedom of speech in Thailand, according to rights advocates.
Buncha Chansombun, who works as a reporter for a Thai-language newspaper, was covering an anti-government demonstration in front of a military barracks on Feb. 28 when he was detained along with nearly two dozen other people.
The reporter, who was held overnight at a police station and released on bail the following morning, is facing six separate charges, including resisting arrest and breaking an emergency decree that forbids large gatherings.
During the pro-democracy protest, police officers and army soldiers fired rubber bullets at protesters, injuring at least 10.
Pictures posted on social media showed unsightly wounds suffered by some protesters. Other images showed policemen in riot gear beating demonstrators, including a young woman.
The government’s heavy-handed response to pro-democracy demonstrations led mostly by youth has drawn widespread condemnation from rights advocates and irate citizens alike.
In an especially troubling development, at several recent demonstrations some working journalists like Buncha and other bystanders like volunteer medics have been manhandled and harassed by police officers in riot gear who appeared to lash out indiscriminately at unarmed and peaceful civilians within reach in an effort to disperse crowds.
Such tactics are in line with the modus operandi of the military-dominated government, which seized power in a coup in May 2014, say rights activists.
Since the military ousted a democratically elected government seven years ago, several basic rights of citizens such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of the press have routinely been violated, eroding Thailand’s former image as a bastion of democratization in the region.
“In the 1990s, Thailand earned a reputation as an emerging Southeast Asian democracy that respected freedom of expression. That is no longer the case,” Human Rights Watch said.
The years since the 2014 military coup “have been marked by intense government repression of those viewed as political threats, whether opposition politicians, activists seeking a return to democracy, or online critics of military rule,” the rights group said.
In their bid to try and silence critics and dissenting voices, including journalists, the authorities routinely resort to such draconian laws as the Computer Crime Act, the Sedition Act and the Criminal Defamation Act.
“[The Computer Crime Act] gives authorities overbroad powers to restrict online expression, impose censorship and enforce surveillance, and extends enforcement of the draconian lese majeste provision online,” says the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group.
“It is a danger to both journalists and citizens trying to access or comment on news developments, and should be either overhauled to explicitly protect free expression or scrapped altogether.”