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As the New York Times implies: Does Thailand expel journalists like China?

11 May 2012

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 10, 2012

The New York Times/International Herald Tribune wrote a blog post on Wednesday that compares two recent developments in China and Thailand, while it may or may not (unintentionally) mislead readers in the first lines:

China’s expulsion of the correspondent for Al Jazeera — a move seen as reprehensible by supporters of press freedoms and the right of dissent — has parallels in other parts of Asia.

Three of the 10 most heavily censored countries in the world are in Asia — North Korea, Uzbekistan and Myanmar, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. China and Vietnam also drew condemnation from the group, which said, “By exporting censorship techniques, China plays a particularly harmful role worldwide.”

China’s Expulsion of Journalist Has Parallels in Thailand“, International Herald Tribune, May 9, 2012

The article then makes quite a jump from talking about the correspondent’s expulsion from China and dives down into the numerous Thai cases showcasing the steady decline of freedom of expression: the death of ‘Uncle SMS’ earlier this week, Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s trial, Joe Gordon’s imprisonment, thousands upon thousands of websites being blocked (even though the numbers differ) and lèse majesté in general – all cases that might be familiar to most readers of this blog.

The attention by the international media on Thailand’s continuous oppression against those seeking to voice their opinion freely and the dire need for legal amendments has rightfully increased again recently with the death of Amphon ‘Uncle SMS’ Tangnoppakul – marking the first victim of the lèse majesté law to die during imprisonment – and so did this IHT blog post, which shows that the atrocities in Thailand can be compared to those in China.

However, leading in with the story of Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan and her expulsion from China and headlining to draw parallels to Thailand may or may not lead readers to believe that this post hints that Thailand is also dealing with its foreign correspondents the same cold and cynical way as the People’s Republic.

If memory serves me right, despite its tendencies, Thailand has not officially to revoke a foreign journalist’s visa yet in recent years. That does not mean, however, that the Kingdom has always been kind to them. In a way, there have been a few cases in recent years that have exposed various Thai authorities putting pressure, if not even downright intimidating, foreign reporters.

In 2002, two journalists from the Far Eastern Economic Review, Shawn Crispin and Rodney Tasker, got themselves into hot water after publishing an article about possible tensions between then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (not the biggest fan of a critical press as well, especially if it’s against him and his business ventures) and the King – which led to the issue being banned and…

Thai immigration authorities threatened to expel two foreign correspondents from the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) on the grounds that they endanger national security. Crispin, the magazine’s bureau chief, and correspondent Tasker, who is also president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, received an official notice revoking their visas dated February 22, the same day that Thai-language newspapers carried stories saying that the police had placed the two reporters on a blacklist. The magazine’s publisher, Philip Revzin, and editor-in-chief, Michael Vatikiotis, were also named in the blacklist circulated to Thai media outlets. (…)

Interior Minister Purachai Piemsomboon, who must formally sign any deportation order, told reporters that it was purely an immigration issue. “This matter has nothing to do with prime minister’s personal anger over FEER,” Purachai told The Associated Press. “Please do not speculate that the government has ordered the police to do such kind of thing.”

Attacks on the Press 2002: Thailand“, Committee to Project Journalists

Their case was probably the closest in recent years to journalists being expelled from Thailand.

Another example highlights some intimidating measures Thai authorities have taken with foreign reporters. German journalist Florian Witulski wrote a detailed blog post on his ordeal to get a work permit and a journalist visa, where the officers have asked him some uncomfortable questions:

Surprise No 1: One of the first critical questions was what my view on the monarchy was. I was clearly asked if I had problems with the King or the monarchy in general.

Surprise No 2: They were very serious in asking me why I am focusing on human rights & censorship and why I didn’t want to cover politics in my home country of Germany instead of Thailand.

After these questions were asked there was a glimpse of clarity for me when they referred to a report from the MICT (Ministry of Information & Technology) about my blog being blocked two times before. I explained to them that I was not aware of writing anything offending in regards to the monarchy (lese majeste laws). I also never changed any content after publishing to appease them and bring the blog back, and yet it never stayed blocked for long.

A file with my name on it was opened and I could not believe my ears when I heard the quotes. The official was reading out selections from my blog posts & tweets (some of them over a year old). The content was mostly about critical issues within Thai culture, the monarchy or Thai politics.

Thai Work Permit:Lese Majeste & Hidden Observers“, Vaitor.com, July 17, 2011

To add injury to insult, the immigration officers have left him out hanging to dry for weeks and weeks until he finally got his permit and visa. Several colleagues have told me that this ‘practice’ is not an exception.

One correspondent that eventually got chased out of Thailand actually happened without the (apparent) help of any officials or authorities. Criticized for their ‘biased’ coverage of the anti-government red shirt protests of 2010, CNN and their correspondent Dan Rivers have been disproportionately witch-hunted by many angry Thai netizens, spearheaded by a fault-ridden open letter that got much, much traction – especially by the folks over at The Nation…! Eventually, Rivers left Thailand and CNN have abandoned their Bangkok bureau – which could have been a source for somewhat erroneous reporting in the following years.

To answer the question that has been raised earlier and that was mistakenly implied by the IHT title whether or not Thailand has expelled foreign journalists in the same fashion as they did with Melissa Chan in China: No! However, these numerous cases show that Thai authorities always have ways to put pressure on them, not realizing that such actions will only backfire and hurt Thailand’s international image even more in the process.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the case of the BBC’s Jonathan Head, who has been hit with a lèse majesté complaint and moved to Turkey in 2009. Read more about his case here.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

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