It was a routine question for any candidate on the campaign trail.
I was calling out questions to Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader running for prime minister, as he walked out of a visit Wednesday to Lumphini Park. He was almost to his vehicle, so I fired off one more.
“If you lose the election, what are you going to do?” I asked.
He stopped walking and turned around with an angry look on his face.
“Who asked that question?” he demanded.
I gently but firmly responded it was me, a member of the media, who wanted to hear the answer. “It’s me, sir,” I told him, raising my hand.
Later, after I filed my report, some other reporters posted the clip of his reaction on social media where it went viral. By the next day, the messages and calls came pouring in. Not of encouragement – but of fear.
“Are you still safe?
“Did his security guards follow you and ask for your personal information?
“Will you be arrested? Will you be sent for ‘attitude adjustment?’”
The consensus seemed to be that I should be afraid of my safety for asking simple questions of the man who wants to lead the nation.
If we look back at the media situation during the past five years since he led a coup, the Thai media climate has become a “Land of Fear” under his rule. Its laws and powers have been used to intimidate the media and the public.
Working as a journalist, I’ve found two issues that create hardship. One was that Thai media cannot criticize the junta. The second is that the junta’s ban on gatherings of more than four people.
Under these conditions, freedom for the media and public has decreased compared to our Southeast Asian neighbors.
As a Thai reporter, it has made my job awkward and forced me to use my diminished freedom as efficiently as possible.
Soon after the coup, a former editor at Thai PBS, where I worked as an investigative journalist, told me to be “less aggressive” because some soldiers were monitoring me “closely.”
I was shocked. I thanked her and said I was just doing my job as a journalist. I also decided I must be doing something right.
Though the military government has made it harder to do our jobs without being arrested, the public seems no less hungry for the truth.
A special report I did on a decade of spending on military hardware, an issue that had been getting attention on social media, got almost a million views within days of going online.
The media should not be working under an atmosphere of fear. Since the junta took over, Thai journalists have lost their nerve and the list of untouchable topics has grown.
As a member of this democracy and a working journalist, my request for whomever leads the country after March 24 is that they please restore freedom to the media and the people.
Give us space to ask questions without being intimidated, threatened, arrested, imprisoned, or forcibly “adjusted.”
If we do wrong or cross ethical lines, we should be entitled to the same rule of law and due process in the civilian justice system without being dragged in front of military tribunals.
Enough is enough.
Hathairat Phaholtap has won numerous awards for her reporting on human rights and justice. A former senior investigative reporter with public broadcaster Thai PBS, she is now an independent journalist.