Court orders police to pay damages to journalists shot with rubber bullets

The Civil Court has ordered the police to pay damages to two reporters shot with rubber bullets while covering a protest in July 2021, as the police did not take care and did not use non-lethal weapons in the proper way. However, the Court ruled that this was not a violation of press freedom or an attempt at intimidating the press to stop their reporting.

White tear gas smoke ahead of protesters on Pitsanulok Road on 18 July 2021

While covering a protest on 18 July 2021, Thanapong Kengpaiboon, a reporter for the online magazine Plus Seven, and Charnnarong Ua-udomchote, a photographer for the online newspaper The Matter, were shot with rubber bullets fired by crowd control police attempting to disperse protesters marching to Government House.

Thanapong was hit in the hip with a rubber bullet while covering the clash between protesters and crowd control police at the Phan Fa Lilat intersection at around 15.50. Charnnarong was hit in the left arm while covering the protest on the street opposite the Rachawinit School. Both said that they were visibly wearing the press armband issued by the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), which has been used to identify field reporters covering protests since 2020. Thanapong also said that the police issued no warning before firing rubber bullets.

They also said that the protesters were not violent at the time they were shot, but the police fired at them indiscriminately, and that they believe the police intentionally targeted journalists. A protester was also injured under the eye from a rubber bullet.

Peerapong Pongnak, a Matichon TV photographer, was also shot in the arm with a rubber bullet while covering the march to Government House via Ratchadamnoen Avenue, which was blocked by crowd control police and water cannon trucks.

Thanapong and Charnnarong filed a lawsuit with the Civil Court against the police for 1,412,000 baht in damages for their injuries, as well as court and lawyers’ fees. The suit also deamnds that the police issue a public apology to journalists affected by the use of force and members of the public, and declare that they will not use force against journalists or attempt to prevent journalists from doing their duties.

The Matter reported that on Tuesday (26 September) the Civil Court ordered the Police to pay Thanapong 42,000 baht in damages and 30,000 baht to Charnnarong. The Court ruled that the police did not take care in their operations. In Thanapong’s case, he was standing with other journalists who were not threatening the officers. Although Charnnarong was too far away for officers to see who they were shooting at, the court still ruled that they showed insufficient care, and that it believes he was shot with a rubber bullet despite the testimony of a police officer that the injury looks like one caused by being hit witha marble.

The Human Rights Lawyers Alliance, whose lawyers represented the two reporters, released the ruling on their Facebook page. They noted that although the Court ruled that the testimony of police witnesses did not match a video clip of the crackdown and that the police did not exercise caution during their operation, the police action was not a violation of press freedom or an attempt to intimidate members of the press to prevent them from reporting on protests, as evidence shows that news outlets continued to report on protests without interruption from the police. The Court also said that since some protesters were using slingshots and setting fire to objects, the police needed to launch a crowd control operation, and that it was normal that such an operation would also affect non-violent individuals present at the scene.

Has violence become normal for Thai journalists?

Thanapong and Charnnarong are not the only reporters injured during police crackdowns on pro-democracy protests, as 2020 -2021 saw many field reporters covering protests injured and arrested. Data collected by Phansasiri Kularb, lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts, shows that there were at least 34 instances in which a member of the press was injured while covering a pro-democracy protest between 2020 – 2021, at least 24 of which were due to the use of rubber bullets.

Presenting her research on the Thai media in political protests at a public panel discussion on press freedom yesterday (26 September), Phansasiri noted that reporters she interviewed told her that police officers deployed in protest sites in 2020 – 2021 were more strict and hostile than they had been during previous mass demonstrations, including the 2010 Red Shirt protests and the 2013 – 2014 protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

At the protest at Sanam Luang on 20 March 2021, during which crowd control police deployed rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannon indiscriminately against the crowd, Prachatai reporter Sarayut Tangprasert was shot in the back by a rubber bullet while livestreaming from the Kok Wua Intersection. He was also wearing the TJA press armband. Journalists from Channel 8 and Khaosod were also injured by rubber bullets during the same protest.

Sarayut later filed a lawsuit with the Civil Court against the Royal Thai Police and then-Police Chief Pol Gen Suwat Jangyodsuk for unlawful dispersal of the protest by firing rubber bullets, blocking the route to the nearest hospital and using excessive force on working journalists. He also asked the court for an emergency inquiry for an injunction. However, the court dismissed the case on the ground that they cannot issue an order controlling the police’s action at future protests, while the investigation into the officers involved was under the authority of the police.

Several reporters were also injured during a crackdown on a protest on 7 August 2021. Two reporters subsequently filed a request with the Civil Court for a temporary protection order. The Court ordered the police to exercise care in the control and dispersal of protests by taking into consideration the safety of the media.

After several reporters were injured and a citizen journalist was assaulted and arrested during a violent dispersal of a protest march that was heading towards the APEC meeting at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre (QSNCC) on 18 November 2022, The Matter filed a court challenge asking the Civil Court to rule whether senior police commanders had failed to obey the 7 August 2021 temporary injunction order. One of their reporters, Sutthipath Kanittakul, was assaulted by crowd control police while livestreaming the protest. 

The Matter said that the Civil Court did not summon police commanders to testify, instead ordering them to submit written testimony. However, the court said that reporters injured during the 18 November 2022 protest may file their own criminal or civil lawsuit.

Phansasiri said that reporters covering the 2020 – 2021 protests also faced other forms of restrictions on press freedom, including state surveillance and arrest. The National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) also warned the media not to cover the 10-point demand for monarchy reform put forward by the activist group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration at a protest on 10 August 2020, citing a Constitutional Court ruling that calling for monarchy reform is treasonous. Meanwhile, the media were becoming afraid of reporting about the protests as more activists were being charged with royal defamation.

She noted that there is still no systematic record of violence against journalists in Thailand, which makes it hard to see the threats, while individual media workers are often blamed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or seen as collateral damage. This means that there are no systematic measures to prevent violence against journalists, especially violence committed by the state. There is also no clear result of government inquiries, granting impunity to those responsible.

The media industry also lacks labour protection, Phansasiri said, and outlets often do not encourage their employees to unionise. This means that media workers do not have the negotiating power, and protection is seen as unnecessary expense.

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