Where doing journalism means ‘breaking the law’

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk flashes a V-sign as he stands with his mouth taped outside a military base in Bangkok on May 25, 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

It had been 48 hours since Pravit Rojanaphruk was hauled in for another “attitude adjustment” session by the National Council for Peace and Order,  Thailand’s ruling military junta. At least, that was his best estimate. The only way the newspaper reporter could keep track of time in his sweltering, 13-by-13 room was by watching television, or observing the streaks of light seep in and shift through cracks in the shuttered windows. Nobody, barring the plainclothes military officials standing guard, knew he was there. It was September 14, 2015, and the second time in two years he had been detained.

As Rojanaphruk sat glued to the TV, both to mark and pass time, he watched as the local stations reported the news of his detainment. “It was surreal,” he recalls.

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Rojanaphruk was released after three days. The junta told reporters at the time that he had been locked up because his articles critiquing the military “could cause confusion and misunderstandings, which “go against the NCPO’s efforts to keep public order.” But since the Thai military took power in May 2014, it has cracked down on politicians, opposition activists, and students while suppressing free expression on social media. Detentions stem mostly from activities that are considered “anti-military,” though the junta has also ramped up enforcement of Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law, which prohibits criticism of Thailand’s royal family. In recognition of Rojanaphruk’s critical reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists is honoring him, along with journalists Ahmed Abba of Cameroon, Patricia Mayorga of Mexico, and Afrah Nasser of Yemen, with an International Press Freedom Award this evening.

“Since taking power, the junta has severely restricted media freedom and conducted extensive surveillance of the internet and other online communications,” Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Thailand, tells CJR. “Pravit Rojanaphruk has become the most prosecuted journalist in Thailand for his relentless criticism of military rule.” At the time of publication, Rojanaphruk faces anywhere from 14 to 34 years’ imprisonment over sedition and cyber-crime charges.

Rojanaphruk, 49, started his reporting career at The Nation, a Thai English-language daily, where for more than two decades he wrote on a number of topics, including LGBT rights, international relations, and politics. But as Thailand’s most recent military coup played out in May 2014, he aimed his pen at the generals and harnessed the power of social media by writing posts that criticized the army’s actions and its leader, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

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In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the army summoned Rojanaphruk, which led to his first detention without charge in May 2014. The NCPO didn’t provide an exact reason for his arrest, but he believes it was in response to his criticism of the army’s seizure of power making it into The New York Times.

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His first “attitude adjustment,” the junta’s term for detainment, took place at a military compound outside of Bangkok and lasted seven days. He was treated relatively well, he says, all things considered: His room was air conditioned, he was given decent food and the occasional beer, and he was invited to play soccer with attending army officers. Rojanaphruk compared the experience to the reality show Big Brother.

After his release, Rojanaphruk says he continued to “criticize, scrutinize, and analyze the military regime” in his reporting for The Nation. And on September 13, 2015, he was summoned once again for detention. Rojanaphruk says military personnel initially brought him in for interrogation,  which lasted six hours as officers tried to extract personal information from him. When he wouldn’t answer questions, he was led to a tinted-out van, blindfolded, and driven to the compound where he would spend three dark days.

When he was released and returned to work, The Nation asked him to resign after 23 years because he was considered a liability. A few months later, he started working at the news site Khaosod English.

 

“To be a journalist covering Thailand truthfully requires breaking the law and becoming an outlaw.”

 

In July, the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Rojanaphruk would be one of four journalists honored with its 2017 International Press Freedom Awards. “When I called to let Rojanaphruk know he had been selected for CPJ’s IPFA, I added the caveat that it was ultimately his decision whether or not to accept,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Senior Southeast Asia representative, tells CJR via email. The award would acknowledge him as a cause celebre for standing up to military repression of the media in Thailand and again put him on the ruling junta’s radar as a voice of dissent.”

Rojanaphruk said he didn’t think twice about accepting the award. But three weeks after it was announced, Rojanaphruk was charged with sedition over Facebook posts that criticized the junta. CPJ has vehemently condemned the charges. “It’s our hope that the recognition will convince Thailand’s junta leaders that their media policies to date have been wrongheaded,” Crispin says.

Rojanaphruk, meanwhile, says the charges against him have had a profoundly negative impact on his country. “It makes people think twice before they post something on Facebook or Twitter,” he says.

Over the last three years, freedom of the press and expression in Thailand has been drastically weakened. In addition to those that have been detained for criticizing the military, more than 100 people have been charged for insulting the royal family under the country’s lese majeste law since the junta took power.

Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Reuters correspondent in Bangkok who quit his job to publish critical articles on Thailand’s monarchy, tells CJR in an email that even though Rojanaphruk has personally “paid a huge price” for his work, such sacrifice is part and parcel of being an intrepid reporter in Thailand nowadays.

“To be a journalist covering Thailand truthfully requires breaking the law and becoming an outlaw. Some people, including me, chose to explicitly break the law and become exiled from Thailand,” Marshall says. “Pravit Rojanaphruk chose an even braver and more perilous approach to telling the truth about Thailand. He has chosen to stay in his country, and say as much as he can without becoming an exile.”

When asked if he has considered staying in the United States rather than return to Thailand to face his charges, Rojanaphruk says that notion never crossed his mind.

“You don’t run away from your duty; you have a responsibility to carry [it] out,” he says. “We need someone to continue to fight and defend whatever we have left of press freedom and freedom of expression in Thailand.”

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Ethan Harfenist is a freelance journalist and editorial producer at NowThis News. He's reported stories out of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and his work has appeared in VICE, the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, and more. Follow him on Twitter @eharfenist.