Sign up for PM Award Updates!

Thai Law Bans Journalists Covering Violence To Wear Body Armour

Bangkok protests cause traffic snarl (Pic. Asian Correspondent)

When the police and the anti-government protestors are equally trigger-happy how do journalists protect themselves? By using body armour.
As clashes turn increasingly violent in Bangkok, Thailand, an international media freedom monitor has demanded that the law banning journalists from wearing body armour be withdrawn as fear mounts that they could become targets caught in the midst of clashes.

“While the basic rule of covering conflicts safely by not standing between opposing forces is inviolable, recent clashes in Bangkok have shown that the danger area is apt to change rapidly and with little or no warning,” says John Le Fevre, a guest blogger for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The street protests began late last year stemming from confrontation between the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the opposition Democratic Party. Simmering unrest flared into open clashes when the Shinawatra government attempted to push through legislation providing amnesty to offenders to include the name of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. Billionaire and a former prime minister, Thaksin is accused of corruption and is in exile, but is said to control Thailand’s politics through his sister.
Fearing that clashes were undermining her legitimacy, Yingluck proposed national elections for February, which she is likely to win. The opposition has denounced the move and asked instead for an appointed peoples’ council. The clashes between law enforcement and the opposition Democratic Party has resulted in grave destruction. The confrontation intensified over the weekend as opposition forced a shut down of Bangkok to paralyse the government.
Among victims of this violence are of course journalists. For instance Nick Nostitz, a freelance German journalist was injured on November 26 when he was falsely identified by members of the opposition as a pro-government Red Shirt. There have been other acts of coercion such as threats and exploiting the law to stifle freedom of the media as well.
On December 26, a reporter was hit by a rubber bullet in front of the Thai-Japanese Stadium Din Daeng. He was clearly identifiable by a green armband.
It is in the context of rising anarchy that journalists have asked they be legally permitted to wear body armour. Body armour such as vests and helmets are illegal to be worn by journalists in Thailand. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said this had led to journalists purchasing substandard equipment in the market.
IFJ’s President Jim Boumelha said in a letter to Thailand’s prime minister, “There are also genuine concerns that the planned protests in the capital Bangkok next week are likely to put journalists at an even greater risk for their physical safety. We therefore urge your government to review its stance on body armour and issue permit and possession licenses so that the professional, committed journalists covering the events in Bangkok and across Thailand can legally protect themselves.”
The firsthand account by Le Fevre shows the choices open to individual journalists. “As a younger photojournalist working in areas of conflict, I tended to shy away from using body armor due to the physical strain of the added weight and decreased mobility. However, given the randomness in which firearms have been used by PDRC protesters in this conflict and by the Thai army in 2010, coupled with increasing age and slower mobility, I’ve determined that body armor is essential for my street-level reporting.”
But Le Fevre’s acceptance of reality is little solace in bureaucracy-riddled Thailand. Since he can only procure substandard body armour in Thailand, he was prepared to import it from overseas.
“The Thai Customs Department advised that I would first need to acquire import licenses from three separate government agencies, including two different Ministry of Defense departments. Thailand’s Arms Control Act stipulates that a permit is required to possess such items, with fines and imprisonment penalties for non-compliance,” he writes.
After a endless procedures to negotiate past stubborn officialdom including obtaining a criminal background check Le Fevre remarks, “Until allowances are made for the legal import and possession of body armor, Thai and foreign reporters will be forced to either break Thai law by possessing and wearing the items without a proper permit; play Russian roulette with costly items sent by mail, subject to seizure and forfeiture by the Thai Customs Department; or continue to be exposed to lethal threats while reporting.”
In his letter to the Thai PM, Boumelha addresses this problem: “Your  government should implement a fast-track system so that as many journalists as possible can be safely equipped to perform their work before the planned shutdown announced for 13 January during which clashes are expected.”
Meanwhile violence continued in Bangkok. On January 13, Associated Press reported, “Overnight, an unidentified gunman opened fire on protesters camped near a vast government complex, shooting one man in the neck who was admitted to a nearby hospital, according to the city’s emergency medical services.”

UN Committee Adopts Resolution Against Mass Internet Surveillance

The United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee unanimously adopted a resolution on November 26 reaffirming privacy as a human right and that it is an integral aspect in individuals exercising their freedom of expression. Although the resolution has largely symbolic value, the United States and its allies successfully lobbied to delete a clause in an earlier draft stating that mass surveillance is a violation of human rights.    

The resolution, sponsored by Brazil and Germany, would extend to all people the right to privacy and to protect them from unlawful surveillance. Earlier this year, documents collected by Edward Snowden revealed that US’s National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on the communications of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel among millions of others, when trawling for electronic communication data from phone records and the and internet.
“Brazil’s Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said the resolution ‘establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium, and therefore need to be protected online and offline,'” said an Associated Press (AP) report on the resolution.
AP said the unanimous adoption of the resolution in the 50-member Third Committee (Social Humanitarian and Cultural Rights) meant that it would also pass the 193-member UN General Assembly. However, UNGA “resolutions aren’t legally binding but reflect world opinion and carry political weight,” AP said.
But unanimity in the Committee was achieved only after the US, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand comprising the ‘five eyes’ network that share intelligence, succeeded in diluting the resolution by lobbying to delete a clause stating that mass interception and collection of personal data constituted a human rights violation.
“[w]e must note that the resolution was weakened by the United States and its allies who stripped out a sentence that explicitly defined mass surveillance as a violation of human rights. The US also tried (and failed) to remove any suggestion that privacy protestions apply extraterritorially. The final text of the draft resolution noted that states have only ‘deep concerns’ with the ‘negative impacts’ of surveillance and collection of personal data, at home and abroad, when carried out on a mass scale,” said the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that studies digital censorship.
EFF also said “[t]he draft resolution is important in restating an already accepted international legal principle: states must comply with their own commitments under human rights law when exercising their power outside their borders. In other words, if a state is conducting extraterritorial surveillance it remains bound to upholding the right to privacy for everyone.”
The resolution also establishes the principle that privacy is essential for the right to the freedom of expression. EFF quoted UN Special Rapporteur of the Freedom of Expression Frank LaRue’s report that says, “Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas…. An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”
To read the Resolution click here

Does Nuke Deal Point To Domestic Reforms In Iran?

Iran President Hassan Rouhani (Pic. courtesy Deutsche Welle)

The deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries early Sunday, has given fresh life to speculation whether the agreement will allow Teheran to crackdown with greater ease on dissidents, human rights defenders and independent journalists, now that western liberal governments are mollified by freeze on the country’s nuclear programme. The deal comes less than week after Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported lukewarm progress in Iran to ease constraints on censorship and freedom of information. 

“[President Hassan] Rouhani repeatedly said during his campaign that ‘all the political prisoners should be released.’ He also said on several occasions that he wanted a change ‘in favour of free speech and media freedom,'” said the Paris-based RSF in a statement on November 19. “…Nonetheless, despite the release of some prisoners of conscience, Iran continues to be one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and netizens, with around 50 currently detained.
“At least 10 more journalists and bloggers have been arrested since his election victory, 10 others have been sentenced to a combined total of 72 years in prison and three newspapers have been closed or forced to suspend publishing under pressure from the authorities.”
Fear that a nuclear deal would help Rouhani to crackdown more severely on dissidents was also expressed by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi in a widely-publicised interview on November 6 with Associated Press.
“Ebadi expressed hope that nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, which are set to resume Thursday, will lead to the end of U.S.-led sanctions and a settlement of the stalemate with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. ‘But I have doubts,’ she quickly added, ‘and I think it’s too early to be optimistic.'” AP reported.
Detailing a series of abuses since Rouhani came to power Ebadi also referred political prisoners continuing to remain behind bars. “In another rights crackdown, she said, the editor of the reformist newspaper Bahar was jailed last week for publishing an article on Shiite Islam deemed offensive by authorities in the Islamic Republic, a predominantly Shiite nation. He was released on ‘hefty’ bail after two days but the paper remains closed,” AP quoted Ebadi as saying.
But this view is contested. The Berlin/Bonn-based Deutsche Welle (DW) quotes Siebo Janssena, political scientist based in Cologne who says that the successful negotiation of the nuclear deal could also signal domestic reforms.
“‘Rouhani is president of Iran today because the electorate is thirsting for economic, social and cultural reforms,’ Janssen said. Iranians have even called for the improvement of the human rights situation in the country.
“According to Janssen, Rouhani still enjoys the confidence of the great majority of Iranians. He could, however, rapidly lose that support if he does not soon implement his reform plan,” said DW.

Therefore, it could be that all is not lost and the international community should use the interim of six months before a long-term agreement is initialled to press for more reforms on some human rights issues at least – especially those Rouhani promised during his election campaign.

In Sri Lanka, “Media Dogs” Should Not Report Protests

The Sri Lanka Army opened fire at villagers protesting contaminated groundwater, killing at least three persons and injuring 15 others, including two journalists covering the incident. One journalist reported his camera was smashed, while the other said that she could not seek medical attention despite her injuries due to a lockdown of the area.
The demonstrations began on August 1, when authorities refused to heed repeated representations by residents of Weliweriya, a village northeast of Colombo, against a glove manufacturing factory discharging effluents. Residents said the effluents contaminated groundwater, thereby polluting water wells. The demonstrators, said to number between 4000 and 6000, were first asked to disperse by the police and army. When the crowd grew restive and began pelting stones, the army opened fine with live ammunition. The dead includes a 17-year-old boy.
The Paris-based international media freedom monitor Reporters without Borders (RSF) commenting on the incident placed it in the context of deteriorating standards of media freedom in Sri Lanka.
“We are very disturbed by the repeated use of violence against journalists in Sri Lanka,” RSF said. “At best, the police take no action when journalists report that they have been the targets of violence. At worst, the army itself, equipped with lethal weapons, organizes and executes these attacks, as it did in Weliweriya.”
Sri Lankais placed in the162nd position of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.
Meanwhile, there appears to have been a plan to block media coverage of the attack beforehand. Associated Press (August 1) reported, “Kanchana Dissanayake, editor of Sinhala-language ‘Ada’ (Today) newspaper, said that his photographer was admitted to a hospital after being beaten by soldiers. He claimed the soldiers said that ‘media dogs’ should not cover the protest and smashed his camera. Another female reporter said on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals that soldiers first targeted journalists because they wanted the media away before turning on the protesters. Many reporters were hiding for many hours into the night, she said.”
The female reporter referred to in the AP story, Deepika Adikari of the daily Lankadeepa, in an account to Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times (August 4) said, “‘One of the soldiers said it was the media that aggravates everything. Saying this we were taken to a side… I suffered an injury to my forehead. As a soldier attempted to grab my camera I dropped it on the ground so that a villager could take it and escape,’ she said.”
The Sri Lanka Journalists’ Trade Union in a statement on August 3 said, “She (Adikari) was assaulted by a soldier with a pole when she was on a roof trying to escape the onslaught. Despite her injuries, Adhikari was unable to receive any medical attention until around 9.30 p.m. She had to stay from 6 p.m. till around 9.30 p.m. to escape from the military attack.”
The SLJTU statement went on to say, “The journalists who were attacked last evening claim that they were subjected to such harassment even when they have identified themselves as media personnel covering the event. The military personnel have at the time referred to the media personnel as ‘dogs in the media.'”
Following the incident, the US embassy in Sri Lanka issued a one-line statement: “The U.S. Embassy is concerned about the violence in yesterday’s protest in Weliweriya, and urges the Government of Sri Lanka to respect the rights of people to protest peacefully, and urges restraint from all sides.”
Sri Lanka‘s Daily Mirror said on August 2, the Sri Lanka Army announced an internal inquiry would be launch on the incident: “Army Commander Daya Ratnayake has appointed a Board of Inquiry headed by Adjutant General of the Sri Lanka Army Major General Jagath Dias to inquire into the allegations levelled against the army during the  Weliweriya incident.”
Sri Lanka‘s military enjoys high levels impunity that has shielded it in the past. The military is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war against Tamil rebels that ended in 2009. But fearing that the military would escape blame in a domestic inquiry, human rights observers have asked for an international investigation into the incidents. Similarly, the military was largely exonerated in the brutal crushing of a rebellion in southern Sri Lank that killed more 60,000 Sinhala youth between 1987 and 1990. Therefore it is unlikely the army inquiry will conducted justly.
Meanwhile, in a swift if clumsy move to escape censure, the Director of Government Information (the body tasked with providing State policy on the media) Ariyaratne Athugala said, “all media institutions should take the responsibility for the assault on journalists during yesterday’s incident in Weliweriya and said the government could not be held responsible for it,” reported the Daily Mirror on August 3.