BANGKOK — A number of reporters said Thursday they were prevented from witnessing riot police’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators during a protest on Saturday.
Several journalists who were covering the Feb. 13 rally near the Grand Palace told Khaosod English that officers ordered them to stay behind the police line while they dispersed the protesters. They also said police intervention was the reason why only a few reporters were able to capture the outburst of violence on that night.
“I didn’t see what was happening in the frontline,” said Sirote Klampaiboon, who was covering the protest for Voice TV. “All I could see was there were clouds of smoke behind the police and I heard several bangs. I was only let go when the police managed to take control of the situation.”
A photo widely shared on social media also shows members of the press being confined between rows of riot police facing each other in front of the Supreme Court building – a police tactic known in Western countries as “kettling.”
“I can’t do my job properly because I am strucking behind the police line with several other reporters,” BBC Thai’s Paris Jitpentom said in the caption. “Please follow news from other channels. I’m sorry.”
ตอนนี้ผมไม่สามารถทำหน้าที่รายงานต่อเนื่องได้อย่างเต็มที่เนื่องจากถูกกั้นอยู่หลังแนวตำรวจร่วมกับผู้สื่อข่าวอีกหลายสำนัก กรุณาติดตามข่าวจากช่องทางอื่น ขออภัยครับ pic.twitter.com/NTihthvLDr
— พริสม์ (@parisjpt) February 13, 2021
Sirote from the Voice TV said there was no explanation from the police as to why journalists were prevented from leaving the police’s encirclement. He said he and his crew got there in the first place because police instructed them to do so.
“There was a commotion when we were told to get behind the police line,” Sirote said. “There were several bangs at that moment, so I thought it was safer to follow what the police said. But once we got inside, police set up a formation that appeared to deliberately prevent us from leaving.”
He also said that a man who appeared to be a commanding officer threatened to detain reporters should they refuse to comply with police orders.
“They said something like we will also arrest reporters if they don’t listen to police orders. I can’t remember the exact word they used,” Sirote said.
Sirote said he attempted to leave, but it was difficult since he came with a TV camera crew that would have caught the attention of police officers.
Erich Parpart, a correspondent for Thai Enquirer news agency, confirmed Sirote’s account that police were threatening reporters with arrest.
“I was in front of the Supreme Court when they ordered us to get behind the police line. It was understandable since there was a commotion and there was no sign that they would prevent us from leaving,” he said in a phone interview. “Some reporters argued with the police and they were threatened with arrest.”
Erich said he was briefly held back behind the police line for a few minutes. He was able to escape when riot police fell out of line to arrest demonstrators, hence avoided being kettled any further by the police.
— Erich Parpart (@erich_parpart) February 14, 2021
“It’s definitely deliberate,” he recalled. “It’s also against the Constitution, which protects freedom of the press. We should be able to film the arrests, but police attempted to block our view. The public deserves to know what is happening.”
Police disputed the allegations, saying they just want to make sure that everyone is safe.
“We have no intention to prevent the media from reporting,” metro police spokesman Piya Tawichai said by phone. “We are trying to accommodate the media and ensure that they are safe. Normally, we would designate a location where reporters can do their job safely without interfering with police operations.”
Khaosod English correspondents at the scene heard the police’s loudspeaker ordering reporters to move away.
“Reporters, go to the side for your safety,” the voice said. “Reporters, I ask for your cooperation. I give you 10 seconds.”
Another reporter, Yiamyut Sutthichaya, who was on the ground covering for Prachatai English, said he believed what the police did could either be an innocent intention to protect reporters, or a deliberate tactic to prevent reporters from capturing violent arrests.
A total of 11 people were arrested during a crackdown on remaining demonstrators near the Grand Palace, some of them, including a volunteer health worker, could be seen being repeatedly hit by riot police with truncheons.
“It could mean either way,” Yiamyut said. “But since there is no official explanation from the police, I don’t know what was their intention. They used to do this in the past when they made arrests.”
Journalists can be seen being told by police to stay behind the police line in this Facebook Live by Prachatai at 2:11:00 mark.
Khaosod English correspondents were further away from the police line and therefore were able to continue reporting the crackdown as it unfolded, but riot police still attempted to block their view when making arrests.
Khaosod English was also the only news media agency to have filmed police beating of a medic volunteer on the night of Feb. 13 while other journalists were being kettled by the rows of riot police.
Spokesman Piya said the media can record police operations as long as it does not interfere with the officers.
“We can’t really prevent the media from doing their job,” Maj. Gen. Piya said.
Journalists were generally free to cover the series of anti-government protests that broke out in July, though police arrested and briefly detained a reporter for Prachatai during a crackdown on protesters on Oct. 16. The journalist, Kitti Pantapak, was later released without charges after several media organizations protested his arrest.