Sun, 23 Jan 2022

BANGKOK - For more than a year, Thailand's political unrest has continued, with activists pushing for government and monarchy reforms.

While protesters demand reduced powers for the royal institution, the risk of breaking sensitive laws that carry heavy punishments still remains. Street demonstrations have also led to violent clashes with police, who have been criticized by demonstrators for being heavy-handed.

Journalists reporting in Thailand often find themselves at risk, too. One reporter is now taking legal action against authorities after being hit by a rubber bullet earlier this year.

Thanapong Kengpaiboon, a journalist for Thai-based news site Plus Seven, has been covering the political protests in Bangkok since they began in 2020.

Thanapong says his job is to cover both sides of the story through text and photography. But in July, the Thai reporter found himself at the center of the story.

Routine coverage

Earlier this year, Thailand's third wave of COVID-19 cases saw the Thai government impose strict lockdowns across the country. But anti-government demonstrators have often defied restrictions to protest the government's overall handling of the pandemic.

On July 18, restrictions were still in place while COVID-19 infections were exceeding 10,000 per day. Bangkok saw protesters take to the streets, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, while marching toward Thailand's Government House.

Thanapong was covering the demonstrations, as he had dozens of times before. He knew what to expect if the situation turned tense.

"When the police are going to do anything to stop the protests, to disband the protest, the first thing they are going to shoot the water cannon,' he told VOA. "Every time they say, 'We're going to shoot the water cannon, press go to the side!' After the water cannon there will be tear gas - and then rubber bullets come last."

FILE - Thai police stand behind a barbed wire fence in efforts to stop street protests, Bangkok, Thailand, June. 24, 2021. (Tommy Walker/VOA) FILE - Thai police stand behind a barbed wire fence in efforts to stop street protests, Bangkok, Thailand, June. 24, 2021. (Tommy Walker/VOA)

Thanapong described how front-line protesters had attempted to break police-made barricades beside Bangkok's Democracy Monument, a prominent landmark in the city. It was about 3 p.m.

"On that day it was very weird," he said. "The protesters tried to drag out the barbed wire, then they burned a straw man [effigy] and the police shot the water cannon to extinguish the fire."

Expecting events to calm as protesters retreated, Thanapong stood on a nearby sidewalk. He was wearing his usual press attire: a helmet clearly labeled "PRESS," a gas mask and media armband used in Thailand to clearly identify locally registered journalists.

Thanapong expected more to hear additional police warnings, but instead heard only gunshots.

Momentarily shocked, the journalist found himself on the ground.

"I think there were three or four gunshots,' he said. 'It hit me and another man. I got hit on the hip; it hurt and I got knocked on the ground.'

He soon realized he'd been hit by a rubber bullet fired by police.

Nearby medics scrambled over and dragged Thanapong to safe area for medical treatment. The impact of the projectile had stung but hadn't penetrated his skin, so he was able to continue working.

But the next day a worsening pain sent him to a hospital where he started ruminating over the events that got him there.

"There was four to six press [reporters] there,' he said, recalling events leading up to the shooting. 'There might have been a protester approximately five meters away. But [in the immediate vicinity was] only journalists; everyone had the armband and helmet. It was still light, not bad weather.

Thailand's reporters are often told to stand to the side while police attempt to disperse protesters during street demonstrations. This photo was taken in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 7, 2021. (Tommy Walker/VOA) Thailand's reporters are often told to stand to the side while police attempt to disperse protesters during street demonstrations. This photo was taken in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 7, 2021. (Tommy Walker/VOA)

"My personal thought is that the police did this on purpose," he said.

Legal action

Although Thanapong was not overwhelmed by the resulting hospital fees - he was fortunate that his injury wasn't especially severe - he was still concerned for the safety of other journalists in the field. Especially those who might not be so lucky when faced with rubber bullets.

Connecting with Thailand's Human Rights Lawyer Association, he decided to bring legal action against the Royal Thai Police.

"I think [the police] must have more responsibility when doing their duties, and they have to protect the freedom of the press," he said, explaining that he isn't seeking any financial rewards, but that HRLA is pressing Bangkok's Civil Court to compensate Thanapong for hospital fees alone.

Col. Kissana Phathanacharoen, a spokesperson for the Royal Thai Police, told VOA it's not the first time a reporter has been injured while covering the protests.

"We have seen a lot of the incidents where journalists have been hit by rubber bullets,' he said, adding that he wasn't personally aware of Thanapong's suit.

"But if it's proven that it's an abuse of power, [the shooter] would have to face criminal actions and disciplinary actions against them," Col. Phathanacharoen speculated, explaining that police are committed to abiding by the law, which includes protections for press freedom.

"Freedom of journalists is guaranteed by Thai law,' he said. 'We are fully compliant with the law ... [and] freedom of journalists is one of the issues we have to take into consideration. We never get in the way to stop saying anyone from anything.

'However, there is a fine line between freedom of expression by journalists and defamation," said Col. Phathanacharoen, alluding to the country's lese majeste law, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison per conviction for insulting or defaming prominent royals, a charged faced by many activists arrested during street protests.

Pressing for increased accountability, Thanapong's defense team is proposing that all police officers on duty must be able to identify themselves.

But Thanapong mainly wants justice.

"For the country that everything is almost falling down, the only hope by us is going by law and go court,' the journalist told VOA. 'I just hope that they have the courage to face the court. If they have courage enough, the public will know.

"I want more transparency from them," Thanapong said.

Earlier this month, Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled that several activists had attempted to overthrow the monarchy but reformers argue they are not calling for the abolition of the royal institution. Street protests took place in response and at least three demonstrators were injured.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Thailand 137 in its World Press Freedom Index for 2021, with 1 being the freest and 178 being the least free.

VOA requested a comment from the Bangkok Civil Court but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

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