CSOs, academics, students, MPs condemn journalists’ arrest

Following the arrest of Prachatai reporter Nutthaphol Meksobhon and Spacebar photographer Natthaphon Phanphongsanon, civil society organizations, academics, students, and MPs have issued statements condemning the arrest as a threat to press freedom and demanded their release.

Nutthaphol Meksobhon (second from left) and Natthaphon Phanphongsanon (second from right) leaving the Ratchadapisek Criminal Court after being granted bail.

Thai Media for Democracy Alliance (DemAll), a network of media professionals, issued a statement on Monday night (12 February) while the two journalists were in detention demanding their immediate release.

DemAll said that journalists should not be prosecuted for covering political protests or actions, whether legal or not, since it is their duty to report the news. The network condemns the authorities for their abuse of power and violation of press freedom.

The Press Freedom Monitoring in Southeast Asia (PFMSea), a consortium of Southeast Asian press organizations, issued a joint statement saying that the prosecution of the two journalists “has a deeply disturbing implication” for the Thai press, since the police seems to equate journalistic duties with an endorsement of an alleged criminal act being depicted in the coverage.

“By prosecuting media workers for doing their jobs, the law enforcement officials have effectively implied that journalism itself is a crime – a precedent that would inevitably cause a widespread chilling effect on the rest of the press industry,” said the statement.

PMFSea called on the Thai authorities to immediately drop charges against Nuttaphol and Natthaphon and compensate them for any physical or mental anguish they may have experienced during their arrest.

Piyanut Khotsan, Amnesty International Thailand’s executive director, said that the journalists’ arrest is a “direct assault on freedom of the press.”

“The government's efforts to silence journalism not only restricts the flow of information but also erodes the diversity and resilience of our society. By labelling journalists as criminals and viewing them as the opposition rather than essential contributors to societal discourse, the government perpetuates a dangerous narrative that stifles dissent and undermines accountability,” she said.

Piyanut called on the government to immediately drop charges and release the two journalists. They must end all actions aimed at silencing journalists and ensure the protection of journalists from harassment and intimidation.

“It is essential for the government to prioritize accountability, transparency, and the rule of law. Amnesty International Thailand stands in solidarity with journalists, and those who work to expose and witness stories,” she said.

Students at Chiang Mai University launched a petition calling for the two journalists' release.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Lawyers Association and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) issued an open letter raising questions about why arrest warrants were issued for Nutthaphol and Natthaphon. It pointed out that the warrants were issued by Attakarn Foocharoen, Deputy Chief Justice of the Criminal Court. It asked whether Attakarn knew that the police were requesting arrest warrants for two journalists and whether there is enough evidence to justify the arrests, as well as whether he had spoken to the inquiry officer in the same way that he did regarding a retracted arrest warrant issued for Senator Upakit Pachariyangkun.

The letter also asked how the inquiry officer could consider journalists working in the field as accomplices, since according to the Criminal Code, being an accomplice means that a person has assisted or facilitated others in committing a crime. It asked whether the police had summoned the two journalists before going straight to request an arrest warrant, and why the police did not release them at the police station when they could have done so.

The arrest warrants were issued in May 2023, said the letter. Prachatai has a permanent office and the police could have tracked down Nutthaphol and Natthaphon either at their workplaces or their residences. The letter asked why the arrests only took place almost a year later, after the clash between pro-democracy activists and royalist groups on Saturday (10 February) and following the accusation that activist Tantawan Tuatulanon blocked the route of a royal motorcade earlier this month.

The letter noted that journalists play an important role in a democratic society, since they are vital to the spread of information and democracy can only be strong when citizens have enough information to make decisions and when people can freely present information, ideas, proposals and political views. This would lead to discussion, which is an important foundation of a strong democracy.

“If press freedom is threatened and the state does nothing, or if the state is using its authority to threaten journalists itself through various methods, it signals the beginning of the use of dictatorial power,” said the letter.

Move Forward Party MPs Pukkamon Nunarnan and Rangsiman Rome tweeted their reactions to the two journalists’ arrest. Pukkamon, a former journalist, said that silencing journalists is a serious problem in a so-called democratic society, and called on the government to show that they are ready to protect people’s freedom and prevent civic space from shrinking.

“You should always be aware that press freedom is the people’s freedom. Protecting the rights and freedoms of the press is protecting the people’s rights and freedom to receive information and to not be left in the dark,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Rangsiman wrote that this kind of prosecution of journalists will lead to a climate of fear, in which political correspondents will have to work in fear. He demanded the release of the two journalists and called on the government to protect press freedom.

“This atmosphere is something that should not happen. Attacking dissidents as the People’s Centre to Protect the Monarchy did to Tawan, and this arrest of journalists means that we have to stop the climate of fear, stop violence, stop lawfare, and use the parliamentary process to solve problems,” he wrote.

Munyat Akarachantachote, a lecturer at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University, also released a statement signed by 1,142 academics, students, activists, media professionals, and members of the public. The statement raised concerns about the arrests and demanded the immediate release of the two journalists. It also noted that journalists are never party to a conflict, and that they must deliver a fair, correct, and comprehensive report so that the public has enough information to understand the situation. The two journalists were working according to their professional principles, and should not be detained.

Students at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Communication Arts staging a protest demanding the two journalists' release. Several students on the front row were holding a sign saying "Press freedom = People's freedom."

Meanwhile, at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts, students staged a protest at 12.30 on Tuesday (13 February) demanding the two journalists’ release. Student representative Aphisit Chawanon said that the students wanted to make a stand against the arrest and protect press freedom.

Aphisit noted that the Thai government wants to run as a candidate for the UN Human Rights Council and said that a government with such intentions should pay attention to freedom of expression and press freedom. He called on the government and political parties to discuss these issues in parliament and to make it clear that no journalists should be arrested or assaulted for doing their job.

The students are concerned, said Abhisit, because they may become journalists after they graduate. They have no way of knowing if they would also be prosecuted for stories they cover, and feel that their profession and future are being threatened.

“There could come a day when we turn on the TV and there is no news on any channel talking about protests, because the government and the police use their authority to arrest people who cover protests,” Abhisit said.

“We don’t want that day to come. We don’t want our world to be that way. We don’t want communication students to graduate just to do business news or public relations news, or do nice PR for the government. We hope that we will have a better future than this.”

Students at Chiang Mai University also collect signatures backing a petition demanding the release of the two journalists.

Nutthaphol and Natthaphon were arrested on Monday (12 February) and accused of being accomplices in damaging a historic site and vandalizing a wall in a public place. The charge resulted from their coverage of an incident on 28 March 2023, when a 25-year-old activist sprayed an anarchist symbol and the number 112, with a strike through it, onto the wall of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, located within the walls of the Grand Palace. They were held overnight in police custody before being taken to court the next morning. They are now released on bail.

Since 2007, Prachatai English has been covering underreported issues in Thailand, especially about democratization and human rights, despite the risk and pressure from the law and the authorities. However, with only 2 full-time reporters and increasing annual operating costs, keeping our work going is a challenge. Your support will ensure we stay a professional media source and be able to expand our team to meet the challenges and deliver timely and in-depth reporting.

• Simple steps to support Prachatai English

1. Bank transfer to account “โครงการหนังสือพิมพ์อินเทอร์เน็ต ประชาไท” or “Prachatai Online Newspaper” 091-0-21689-4, Krungthai Bank

2. Or, Transfer money via Paypal, to e-mail address: [email protected], please leave a comment on the transaction as “For Prachatai English”