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As journalists are not exempt from the 10pm - 4am nationwide curfew, some face a difficult time trying to do their job and are upset by the stance taken by the Thai Journalists Association. There are calls for a more friendly policy toward the media during the outbreak.

Cameramen and journalists at the parliament, Bangkok (file photo)

On the night of 3 April, Hathairat Phaholtap, the Thai editor of The Isaan Record, an independent media outlet based in northeastern Thailand and a former senior journalist at Thai PBS, was out making a live Facebook video of the first night under curfew in Khon Kaen Province.

Shortly after 10pm, she was asked by a police officer at an inter-provincial checkpoint to stop her live video.

“The police then came to tell me ‘Ma’am, it’s past the time for reporting. It’s a curfew. You should respect the curfew’”, Hathairat quoted the scripted response from the police.

The role of journalists during the COVID-19 curfew has been restricted since day 1. As of now (15 April) only workers in certain occupations are allowed out. Those who want to cover the news have to get permission on a case by case basis.

Under such conditions, journalists are uncertain whether they can report during the curfew in a timely manner. The curfew also gives the authorities 6 extra hours to act without immediate scrutiny.

However, the media response in Thailand has differed.

Curfew poses ‘no problem’

Mongkol Bangprapa, a Bangkok Post reporter and President of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), said that a meeting of the TJA and Thai media organizations mostly agreed that the curfew poses no problem for covering the news.

“Although there is now a 6-hour curfew, in reality it has not been a clear obstacle in practice for the Thai media to do its duty. It can be seen that workers on late shifts are still able to return home. In case of covering ongoing stories, the Thai media, especially the mainstream media, can cooperate with the relevant authorities.

“In fact, I think that everybody in an incident has a mobile phone that can record the situation. Afterwards, the media can be notified and can follow up the story in the remaining time, because it does not mean that if the media is on patrol during the curfew, they would accidentally be exactly on the scene.” Mongkol said.

The TJA chair said that COVID-19 is a health crisis, not political. The Thai media would not hesitate to cooperate with the state over the 6-hour curfew . Moreover, it would set an example that everybody should abide under one law.

Curfew poses ‘more’ problems

Hathairat, who got through that night without being prosecuted by showing her press credentials, said that she was upset with the lack of opposition from the TJA and media in Bangkok to the infringement against media freedom. Preventing the media from covering stories may endanger people who risk abuse of power by the authorities.

“With pictures of the atmosphere in the country, journalists are the ones who record history. These pictures are very valuable to the history of Thai society. The fact that you obstruct us like this is the same as blocking people from finding out things, which is the basic right of the people to receive information.”

“Under the emergency decree, if you cover up information, like China, the more you cover up, the more the disease spreads. Let the professional media that have this duty, report the news, rather than have people receive false information from shares.  Wouldn’t that be more correct?” said Hathairat .

When the COVID-19 first began to spread in Wuhan, the Chinese authorities were serious about covering up the story of the outbreak. As a result, the situation became worse and people lost trust in information from the authorities.

Hathairat, The Isaan Record and some journalists in northeastern region are establishing the Isaan Journalists Association. She said that it would represent journalists in the region as the central media and media associations have left them feeling defenceless in this outbreak.

“What are the central media doing? The TJA that was once an organization that journalists could rely upon, what are you doing? Don’t you know that we are being deprived of the rights and freedoms to do our job?”

“We call on the central media to come out and do something. Local media in the provinces are finding it hard to access information especially after the curfew. We are sure to be arrested when we go out” the editor of The Isaan Record said.

Gwen Robinson, Chief Editor of the Nikkei Asian Review and President of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT), said that she is disappointed that some big Thai media and the TJA do not see curfew restraints as an issue. The media may not be able to live up to government expectations in reporting accurate information under these conditions.

“I think it’s very disappointing, because I don't think they’re thinking about what could come next if you accept this without even asking them to ‘please reconsider’.

“We don't want fake news obviously, but they can't expect us to be locked up and not able to go out and get accurate information.”

Media-friendly policies are needed

Robinson said that the media had to secure special permission from the police chief or the Chief of Defence Forces Gen. Pornpipat Benyasri. However, past experience shows that asking permission from a high-ranking officer may take a long time.

“If someone says to you, there’s a new checkpoint in Bangkok on Sukhumvit road, if you want to go and see it, you might have to write the letter now and maybe they will give you the answer within 5 days.”

On 7 April, the FCCT, the Matichon group and several independent media like The Isaan Record, Thai Enquirer and Thisrupt, issued an open letter calling for a curfew exemption for journalists without having to ask for permission. There has still been no significant change in policy.

“We think that Thai government [has] issued an official press accreditation and a lot of our members are officially accredited. Why can't journalists who are officially accredited use their press ID card? It makes sense if we can prove that we are doing a story, then you can show the card.” Gwen suggested.

Hathairat suggests that the government should exempt the media, official or unofficial, from the curfew like public health workers. A letter of accreditation from the editorial team or a press ID card should be enough to identify themselves.

Mana Treelayapewat, Vice-President of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC) and a mass communications academic, suggests that the state should facilitate the media in exercising the freedoms and rights of the media to access information, for example, providing health safety kits or having officers assist them at checkpoints.

“I think that during the curfew nobody goes outside. Journalists themselves are a group who also have a risk of being infected. But if they decided to go reporting, with the approval of their editors, that should be their right. For example, going outside to cover homeless people, how they live during the curfew should be their right which should be possible under precautions against infection.” Mana said.

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