Thailand’s Unsettling Arrest of an American Journalist
The Thai government charged a photojournalist for having body armor
The Thai government has charged Hok Chun Anthony Kwan, an American photojournalist from Minneapolis, with the crime of weapons possession. The Royal Thai Police detained Kwan as he tried to board a plane after covering the aftermath of a deadly bomb explosion at a shrine in Bangkok on Aug. 23. He is now out on bail and has a pre-trial date set for Nov. 16.
The problem is that the Kwan didn’t actually have any weapons on him. What he had was a bulletproof vest and helmet, both common pieces of equipment for journalists venturing into potentially dangerous territory.
Thailand is a relatively safe country for western tourists and business people, but it’s more hazardous for journalists covering the insurgency in the south, terrorist attacks or political upheaval. As we discovered, working as a journalist in the south will likely, at the least, provoke the military into investigating you.
Kwan’s charges comes at a time when international reporting is becoming more difficult. Major news outlets around the world are closing international bureaus and increasingly keeping their staff based in corporate offices.
These same media organizations rely more on freelancers and local stringers. Today’s correspondents often need to pay for their own protective gear and have little assistance from news agencies. The job is hard enough — and risky enough — without authorities deliberately targeting journalists.
Under Thailand’s 1987 Arms Control Act, body armor is treated as a weapon and requires a license to possess. Violations are punishable by up to five years in jail. But the Thai government has rarely applied these rules to journalists. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand condemned Kwan’s arrest in a released statement:
Mr. Kwan brought in body armour and a helmet, as have many other journalists in Thailand, solely for his personal safety. Such equipment used by journalists should not be regarded as offensive weapons.
Instead of charging Mr. Kwan, the Thai authorities should consult with the media community in Thailand, both foreign and domestic, to explore a way around the 1987 law, which was surely not intended to prosecute journalists carrying out their normal duties.
Foreign reporting can be incredibly dangerous, particularly in areas prone to political violence. But for photojournalists such as Kwan, getting close to the action is a necessity — it’s where the story is.
People need to see violence to understand it. Body armor helps reduce the inherent risks that come from documenting violence, allowing journalists to go deeper and increase the likelihood they’ll live to file their stories and images.
The increasing danger of journalistic work is a global phenomenon. Many journalists try to remain impartial, but armed groups have come to see the media as a target. Terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda have kidnapped and executed reporters — and made the killings into spectacles. Meanwhile, governments and paramilitary groups that don’t want their activities scrutinized often see the presence of journalists as a liability. A liability they’re willing to deal with violently.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 44 journalists died doing their jobs in 2015. Of those, 10 were killed in the crossfire in war zones while 33 were specifically targeted.
Today, it’s more important than ever for journalists to be vigilant and take as many precautions they can to protect themselves, including wearing protective gear in the presence of potential danger. One would hope that the rule of law would be on their side.
The Thai government may not have initially targeted Kwan for being a journalist, but it has had ample time to clear up the confusion. Kwan’s identity and his reasons for wanting to protect himself are by now very well established. The decision to move forward with the charges is baffling — and frankly unsettling.
As the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II, civil wars rage, terror groups evolve and superpowers posture against each other, it’s more important than ever for us to know what’s going on around the globe. We can’t accept the arrest and harassment of the people who are willing to take the risks and show us.