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Safety issues raised as casualties among journalists covering Bangkok clashes increase

(SEAPA/IFEX) - 17 May 2010 - Journalists covering the renewed clashes between Thailand's security forces and the anti-government Red Shirt protesters have found themselves literally caught in the crossfire.

SEAPA maintains its stand that the violence directed against the media in Thailand is indefensible. These attacks will victimize not only the press, but also the Thai public in general, which both need free media, unintimidated journalists, and a healthy environment for news, commentary, and information to help understand and determine their options especially in these days of crisis.

As of Sunday, 16 May 2010, 33 people have already been killed with 239 injured, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's Emergency Health Service Center.

Of this number, five journalists were wounded by gunfire as troops fought with protesters after the government gave out orders to cordon off the protesters' rally site in Ratchaprasong intersection on Thursday night. Power and water supplies were cut off, Skytrain and subway lines were stopped and roadblocks set up to prevent more Red Shirts from reinforcing their comrades in Bangkok's commercial district. The Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) also announced that soldiers are now authorized to fire live rounds one shot at a time in case the use of rubber bullets to dissuade armed protesters would prove to be ineffective. The troops, the government said, are to shoot only at the legs of any resisting protesters.

However, three journalists on Friday, 14 May, found themselves shot in the leg when they covered the skirmishes in Wireless Road, Bangkok's Embassy Row, which runs parallel to Lumpini Park, occupied by the protesters since 12 March.

Canadian national Nelson Rand, who works for France 24 TV channel, was shot three times - in the abdomen, in one of his legs and another in one of his wrists. He was rushed to Chulalongkorn Hospital where he underwent surgery.

Subin Namchan, a photographer of the Thai-language newspaper, "Matichon", sustained a gunshot wound in the thigh at the Sarasin-Wireless intersection. He was brought to Bumrungrad Hospital.

Meanwhile, Supawat Wanchantha, cameraman for Thai Voice TV Channel was also shot in the leg and was brought to Rama 9 Hospital.

Witnesses said some of the injured journalists were covering the action near the lines of the protesters. It is not clear, however, if the three journalists - all sustaining a gunshot wound in the leg - were deliberately shot or were just victims of stray bullets.

The following day, Chaiwat Poompuang, a veteran photojournalist of "The Nation" newspaper, was shot in the leg when he was covering the fighting at the Din Daeng intersection near Ratchapraprop Road between some 300 Red Shirts and the soldiers manning the barricade.

On Sunday, 16 May, a PTV cameraman's life was saved by the bulletproof vest he was wearing while lying on the ground at around 4 pm near the Lumpini Tower in Rama 4 Road. Phutthapong Chusaeng said he felt a severe pain in his back when the bullet impacted his vest. His colleague from another TV station, Thai PBS, said the bullet did not pierce the vest.

These incidents underline the physical dangers faced by journalists in the on-going political crisis in the Thai capital, which started on 12 March this year.

On 13 May Thursday, a reporter for the "New York Times" came within a hair's breadth of death on Lumpini Park near Rama 4 Road when the man he was interviewing, renegade Maj. Gen. Katthiya Sawasdipol alias "Seh Daeng", was hit in the right temple by a bullet fired by a sniper.

Thai reporters have started wearing safety equipment like ballistic helmets and bulletproof vests in the aftermath of the violent April 10 dispersal of the Red Shirts in Ratchdamnoen Road. Japanese journalist Hiro Muramoto, who worked as a cameraman for British news agency Reuters, was killed after he was shot in the chest.

A freelance photographer for ABC news, Winnai Ditthajorn, suffered from a gunshot wound to his left leg in the same incident.

Thai reporters and photographers have lobbied their respective media employers to equip them with these two items as fighting between the troops and the protesters continued to heat up. Sources said that it came to a point where some journalists even threatened to stop their news coverage if not issued a helmet and a vest.

Prior to this, the only protection the journalists had was a green armband distributed by the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) identifying the wearer as a member of the media.

The TJA has repeatedly issued statements the past months calling on both parties to spare journalists from threats, harassment and physical attacks while they are covering the political conflict.

In the aftermath of these recent shooting incidents, the TJA and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) called on journalists to exercise caution during coverage and urged them to look first after their own safety.

SEAPA observed in a prior press statement that the attacks on journalists "serve no purpose but to intimidate all media practitioners, and will ultimately deprive Thais the information, news, and commentary they need to understand and navigate these perilous days".

However, even the reporters' abode is increasingly at risk, too. An AFP photographer, Pedro Ugarte, said that the hotel he was staying in, the Dusit Thani Hotel on Rama 4 Road, sustained bullet hits and several rounds from what were believed to be rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at dawn of 17 May, forcing the hotel to ask its guests to check out at noon for their own safety. Foreign correspondents billeted in a nearby hotel had also reportedly checked out earlier due to increased dangers brought on by the fighting.

As of press time, the CRES issued an ultimatum to the remaining protesters, especially women, children and the elderly, in Ratchaprasong to leave the area even as it braces for a determined resistance from the hardcore elements of the Red Shirts. The TJA and TBJA also called on the media to pull out of the protest zones and other areas declared as "illegal" by the CRES for their own safety.

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