PHUKET: Anti-government protesters in Thailand should immediately cease intimidating the media and occupying TV stations in Bangkok, Human Rights Watch said today.
Over the past seven months, Thailand has been convulsed by blockades of government offices by groups opposed to the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Political tensions escalated further on May 6, 2014, with Yingluck's removal by the constitutional court and protesters' new demands to topple the government of recently appointed acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Bunsongpaisal.
On May 9, thousands of protesters in the network of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) besieged major TV stations in Bangkok, including Channels 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11, and demanded that they stop broadcasting information from government sources.
Protesters occupied those stations and closely monitored news reporters to ensure that their demands are followed.
When Channel 9 aired a government announcement criticising the siege of television stations, the PDRC's top leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, publicly warned them that a ''mistake'' like that would not be tolerated again.
PDRC protesters blocked Channel 11 news crews from using studios and equipment at their headquarters to produce programs that protesters considered critical of the PDRC.
''PDRC protesters' occupation of television stations and threats against the media are not only illegal, but show an ugly disregard for freedom of the press,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ''Press freedom is about allowing all views to be heard, not just those of one side.''
On May 7, PDRC security guards assaulted Nick Nostitz, a German freelance photojournalist, outside the constitutional court while he was reporting on the ruling that resulted in the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck from office.
Nostitz, who was wearing a green Thai Journalists' Association (TJA) armband that clearly identified him as a member of the press, was singled out by those guards.
PDRC guards approached Nostitz and ordered him to meet their leader, Buddhist monk Buddha Isara. When he declined, Nostitz was shoved hard in the chest and pushed around. Then the guards attempted to drag him away with them.
Police intervened after shouts for help from Nostitz and another journalist. Nostitz was taken by police to hide inside the courthouse and eventually driven to safety in a police car. This was the second attack in six months on Nostitz by the PDRC.
In response to the incidents, the Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association issued a joint statement calling on the PDRC to immediately end intimidation of the media, particularly the occupation of TV stations, and urging all sides to ensure that news crews can operate freely and safely.
The statement said that the media should not be pressured to take sides in the political confrontations.
Government threats to pursue legal action against the media have also contributed to a reduction of press freedom, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 9, the government's Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) violated the right to freedom of the press when it warned that any TV station that assists the PDRC could face both criminal and civil prosecution.
''Growing political confrontations are putting journalists at risk from both anti-government forces and the government,'' Adams said.
''Senior political figures on both sides of the divide should agree not to make the media the enemy, and immediately order their supporters to respect press freedom and the opinions of others.''
Reporters Without Borders
Reporters Without Borders is worried by intimidation of the main TV stations by demonstrators yesterday and today after the constitutional court dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on 7 May for ''abuse of power.''
The pressure is the result of an opposition call for a ''final battle'' against the government, with demonstrators being urged to march on government headquarters and the TV stations.
The headquarters of five TV stations (Channels 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11) have been surrounded by demonstrators who are demanding that they cease to broadcast government announcements and instead broadcast those of the opposition Peoples' Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
Channels 3, 5 and 7 have bowed to the demands while Channel 11 is continuing to broadcast government statements. In some cases, demonstrators have reportedly occupied the TV stations.
''It is unacceptable that government opponents should target TV stations during their demonstrations,'' said Reporters Without Borders research chief Lucie Morillon.
''The media must be able to continue their job of reporting the news without being forced to choose one or the other side and without being subjected to pressure and, still less, occupations. We call on the opposition to immediately withdraw their demands on the TV stations and to stop surrounding them.''
Thailand has been embroiled in a political crisis for the past six months with clashes between pro and anti-government demonstrators and both sides targeting the media.
Journalists were injured while covering clashes between demonstrators on the eve of the recent parliamentary elections.
Nick Nostitz, a German photo-journalist who was already attacked in November 2013, was again targeted by opposition ''Yellow Shirts'' outside the constitutional court on 7 May.
Thailand is ranked 130th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.