Bullet-proof vests are meant to save your life but in Thailand they can get you arrested, as Hong Kong-based photo-journalist Hok-chun “Anthony” Kwan learned when officials at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport found a bullet-proof vest and helmet in his bags as he was about to fly home on 23 August.
The authorities arrested Anthony Kwan on a charge of “possessing an illegal weapon” and, for the time being, are preventing him from returning to Hong Kong. Bullet-proof vests and helmets are regarded as controlled military equipment under Thailand’s 1987 Arms Control Act and users are supposed to have a licence issued by the defence ministry. The law is nonetheless rarely applied to the many reporters who use bullet-proof vests while covering Thailand’s frequent political protests. Kwan was freed on bail on the afternoon of 24 August but his passport has been confiscated and he is forbidden to leave Thailand pending formal indictment. His lawyer, Pawinee Chumsri of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, said he has been told to report to the court every 12 days until the prosecutor’s office decides whether or not to prosecute. He could be tried by a military court and is facing a possible five-year jail sentence or a fine of 50,000 bahts (about 1,230 euros). “We urge the judicial authorities to rescind the order that prevents Anthony Kwan from leaving Thailand and to drop the charges against him,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “It is unacceptable that a journalist trying to protect himself in a dangerous environment should be prosecuted in this way. Physical safety measures such as bullet-proof vests and helmets are essential for media personnel. We expect the Thai authorities to allow reporters to protect themselves instead of making protection more complicated.” Deloire added: “We also point out that journalists who apply for a licence to wear protective equipment rarely get a response from the competent government authorities, which shows that they are being hypocritical. Reporters must be able to avoid being shot like rabbits.” Kwan, 29, works for Initium Media, a Chinese-language news website based in Hong Kong. The website sent him to Bangkok to cover the aftermath of the Erawan shrine bombing, whose 22 fatal victims included two young people from Hong Kong. Media outlets and reporters were repeatedly targeted by both soldiers and demonstrators during the frequent clashes between the different political factions and the army before the May 2014 coup. Hiroyuki Muramoto, 44, a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters, was shot dead during violent clashes between the army and deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “Red Shirt” supporters in Bangkok on 10 April 2010. Italian freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi, 45, was killed in similar circumstances on 19 May 2010. Neither was wearing a bullet-proof vest. The situation of foreign journalists has been very precarious in Thailand since the military coup. They have reported finding it increasingly difficult to obtain or renew work visas and accreditation, while the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand has been the target of repeated pressure and intimidation by the junta. Media personnel, especially foreign investigative reporters, were already exposed to threats before the military takeover, but the threats have been exacerbated by the political tension created by the military. Thailand is ranked 134th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.