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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an international media freedom monitor has demanded that the law banning journalists from wearing body armour be withdrawn as fear mounts that they could become targets caught in the midst of clashes.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.”

Using Interpol to Crackdown on Journalists, Activists

Dodojon Atovulloyev (Photo courtesy RSF)

As they grow increasingly intolerant of dissent, two Central Asian countries have used Interpol to track down and deport dissident activists, including journalists, who fearing reprisals by their governments, have sought refuge overseas. On August 20, Tajik authorities asked the Georgia to deport well-known journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev, while in the past year Kazakhstan has used Interpol to arrest opposition political figures from Poland, Spain and the Czech Republic. 
Many countries involved in crackdowns are part of the European Union, while Interpol is headquartered in Lyons, France.
Atovulloyev, who was held at Tbilisi airport from August 20 was however allowed to fly back to Germany next day where he has refugee status, said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF).
“The Georgian interior ministry said he was detained by airport border guards… at Interpol’s request,” RSF said.

RSF described Atovulloyev as an opponent of President Emomali Rakhmon’s government and the editor of Charogi Ruz (Daylight), independent Tajikistan’s only privately-owned newspaper. He had fled Tajikistan in 1993 after receiving death threats.
Interestingly, the Atovulloyev’s persecution in the region is seemingly not limited to Interpol holding him at Tbilisi airport. He was also denied entry into Russia in July, where Charogi Ruz is now produced RSF said.
While expressing relief the Georgian government had not extradited Atovulloyev to Tajikistan, RSF said “The Tajik government has for years been using all kinds of means to get its hands on this journalist. The arrest warrant that it apparently sent to Interpol is just its latest scheme.”
The Rakhmon regime’s targeting of critics does not stop with Atovulloyev. RSF’s statement continues, “Persecution of the government’s opponents in exile has been growing in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for November. Umarali Quvvatov was briefly detained in Dubai last December. Former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajanov was arrested in Kiev in February, while Atovulloyev survived a murder attempt in Moscow in January 2012. However there was no reference that Interpol was used for the detentions.
Meanwhile, EUobserver in an article voiced concern that Kazakhstan was using Interpol, “to wage a political vendetta in the heart of the EU.” It said that Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was using the international law enforcement organisation to crackdown on his country’s dissidents that had fled the regime’s persecution.
EUobserver said that following clashes in December 2011 that had left 17 people dead, Nazarbayev had ramped up stifling opposition to his regime. He had declared Alga, an opposition party “extremist” and jailed its leader Vladimir Kozlov.
“In recent months, his administration has also used Interpol to pursue dissidents in European Union countries. To some extent, the Interpol requests are a form of PR: they try to give credibility to Kazakhstan’s claims that opposition activists are criminals,” writes Anna Koj in the EUobserver.
Koj writes that on June 12, Muratbek Ketebayev, an opposition member, was detained by the Polish police on an alert by Interpol. Ketebayev is charged by Kazakh government of spreading “social hatred.” On July 25, a Spanish court agreed to extradite Alexandr Pavlov, arrested on the basis of an Interpol ‘red notice’ after Kazakhstan accused him of fraud. Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading opposition figure, was detained by French police near Cannes on July 31 on the basis of an Interpol notice filed by Ukraine. Tatiana Paraskevich, detained in May 2012 on the basis of an Interpol alert, is fighting extradition from the Czech Republic to Ukraine.  EUobserver said Nazarbayev uses Russia and Ukraine which are friendly countries to crackdown on its dissidents living overseas.
Tajikistan is 123rd and Kazakhstan 160th in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.