The consequences of reporting in Thailand: prosecuted Prachatai reporter

Between 21-24 March 2017, Ratchaburi Provincial Court will hold witness hearings for and against the criminal case of Taweesak Kerdpoka, 25, a Prachatai journalist. Taweesak, along with four student activists, was accused of violating Thailand’s Referendum Act while reporting on villagers summoned to a local police station. 
 
Here is Taweesak’s statement before the hearings begin.
 
 
Taweesak Kerdpoka
 
Working as a journalist at Prachatai was my dream even when I was still studying at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Political Science. I chose to read Prachatai because it presents news through alternative angles, giving importance to human rights, community rights and the worth of the humanity of those who fall victim to political conflict.
 
Being a journalist is one thing in my life that I am proud of. I believe that some of my work is helping Thailand advance towards internationally accepted principles such as democracy, human rights and respect for the humanity of all people, even when our political views differ. 
 
I began working as a journalist at Prachatai on 16 February 2013. At first, the editor assigned stories covering human rights abuses and community rights abuses related to natural resources and the environment. But from 2015, I was assigned to stories about political human rights abuses, and have followed the movements of political activists, cases of those prosecuted for political activity and the draft constitution including the referendum that took place last year.  
 
Covering the August 2016 constitutional referendum was especially important because Thailand was deciding what path it will follow over the next five to twenty years. Even though the junta held a referendum so that people could approve or reject the junta-backed draft constitution, in reality various laws and the repressive actions of both soldiers and police limited campaigning. More than 200 people were detained in the lead-up to the referendum. 
 
The majority of those arrested were people who discussed their views publicly or who showed that they did not agree with the draft constitution — this even included journalists like me.

Arrested while reporting

 
On the morning of 10 July 2016, activists from the New Democracy Movement travelled to the Ban Pong Police Station in Ratchaburi province to give support to red shirt villagers who had been summoned for opening a referendum monitoring centre. The villagers were accused of unlawful assembly and of a political gathering involving more than five people, an action that violates NCPO Head Order 3/2558.
 
I rode in the same car as the activists merely to report on the event. I had no hand in their activities and campaigning at all.
 
When I was arrested, an official claimed that there was reason to suspect that I was participating in the activist’s activities since I was riding in the same car, even though I explained that I was a journalist. I was interrogated and detained at the police station for one night, before receiving temporary bail from the Ratchaburi Provincial Court. The bail valued at 140, 000 baht was provided by Prachatai.
 
A criminal case was initiated on the grounds that I had violated Article 61 Clause 2 of the Referendum Act and Order 25 of the former military government, the Council for Democratic Reform. The latter was related to my refusal to give fingerprints during the police interrogation, since I didn’t consent to the interrogation process to begin with. Authorities did not give prior notice of the charges and merely said that they were summoning me for a chat and to make daily records.
 
When I was arrested, I didn’t feel scared because I was certain I hadn’t done anything wrong. More importantly, the activists who I shared a car with hadn’t done anything wrong either. The accusations rested merely on the presence of documents related to a referendum campaign and stickers saying ‘Vote No’ in the car — that was all.
 
In a democracy country, these would have been very ordinary items. Referendums need campaigns that disseminate information and which exhibit freedom of thought. But Thailand lives in a state of exception. I believe the Thai government is afraid and so tries to limit both the rights and freedom of the people and media reform — which are all connected.

An assault on media freedom, life as usual 

 
Of the feelings that arose the day I was arrested, only anger remains. I’m angry every time government leaders try to claim that they are currently leading Thailand to a restoration of a democratic system. But in reality they are doing the complete opposite.
 
Their decision to arrest me was perhaps another attempt to control news about campaigns critiquing the draft constitution, and to show other media outlets the consequences of critical reporting. But they were not successful! After I was released on bail, I returned to my journalistic duties as before.
 
Throughout my prosecution, I have received support from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, during every step of the legal process. Prachatai reimburses the costs of travelling to court regularly, such as accommodation and food, since they were a consequence of reporting. 
 
But I think prosecution has brought few consequences. I still work as usual, though at first after receiving bail, police and military visited the Prachatai office with search warrants to inspect various documents that they suspected were related to the referendum. Though the authorities never found any such documents, the office inspections probably intended to intimidate and instill fear in my colleagues. But in the end they were not able to affect our work in the long-term.
 
But there is one memory that still confuses me. One evening after some officials searched the office, I returned home to find one of their cars, which remained parked outside my apartment for more than three hours. They had never visited my apartment before. Even though I don’t fear prosecution, I never really believed that anything would happen to me. Some time ago some student activists went to Rajabhakti Park to investigate government corruption, and were subsequently arrested and accused of criminal activity. They were also detained without any prior warning from authorities. They were released the next day, showing clearly that the actions of the authorities intended to intimidate and threaten.
 
So my story is one of a reporter prosecuted for reporting, for reporting about a referendum campaign and the consequences of expressing thought in Thailand. I believe these are issues that affect the rights and freedom of people intensely. They show the government’s severe attempts to obstruct citizen understanding and the duties of mass media. The government was to build an atmosphere of fear around campaigning during the referendum, something so key to the country.
 
If I could ask for one thing, I hope that Thai media organisations will help one another to continue reporting stories during the 2014 coup’s aftermath. This isn’t a story about me, it’s a story about human rights abuses and violations of freedom, intimidation, freedom of political opinion.
 
Thank you to my friends working in media across the country and in other countries who have called on the government to cease prosecuting me — though I’m not sure the military government is ready to listen to such demands. In any case, these demands are an affirmation of the principles and importance of both media freedom and security, which are the mainstay of the freedom and rights of the Thai people.