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Jailed Myanmar reporter’s body found buried and riddled with bullets

25. February 2024

Myat Thu Tun is the fifth Myanmar journalist to be killed by the junta since the coup d'état in February 2021. His body was recently found buried, riddled with bullets and marked by signs of torture. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the international community to take action to force the junta to stop this massacre.

The buried body of Myanmar journalist Myat Thu Tun was recently found in the town of Mrauk-U, in the western Rakhine region, along several bodies of prisoners buried in an air shelter, and was reportedly marked with gunshot wounds and signs of torture, according to a statement by the rebel troops of Arakan Army on 11 February 2024.

"This shocking murder bears the hallmark of the Myanmar military junta, which for three years now has imposed a climate of terror on all media professionals and is once again demonstrating its ruthless violence. We call on the international community to step up pressure on the Myanmar regime to cease its campaign of terror against reporters and release the 62 journalists and press freedom defenders detained in the country," said Cédric Alviani, RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau Director

The victim, Myat Thu Tun, also known as Phoe Thiha, had been held in prison since his arrest at his home in September 2022, and was awaiting trial on charges of "disseminating false information" and "inciting hatred", under Article 505(a) of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to three years imprisonment. 

Before the coup in February 2021, he had worked for various Myanmar media outlets, including the Democratic Voice of Burma, 7 Days Journal and The Voice Journal. At the time of his arrest in September 2022, he was still working for local media Western News in the western state of Rakhine.

Myat Thu Tun is the fifth journalist to be killed by the military junta since the coup d'état in February 2021. Freelance photojournalists Aye Kaw and Soe Naing were also murdered in detention, while the founder of the Khonumthung News Agency Pu Tuidim and the editor of the Federal News Journal Sai Win Aung were both shot by the army while reporting on the ground.

Myanmar, ranked 173th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index, is one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists with 64 detained, second only to China.

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RSF demands the Thai authorities drop charges against two journalists

23. February 2024

Following the arrest of Nutthaphol Meksobhon, a Prachatai reporter, and photographer Natthaphon Phanphongsanon, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement calling for the Thai authorities to drop the charges against them and to end harassment of journalists.

Nutthaphol Meksobhon (left) and Natthaphon Phanphongsanon (right) speaking to reporters after being granted bail.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Thai public prosecutor's office to immediately drop the charges brought against two Thai journalists, who face up to 7 years in prison for documenting graffiti painted criticising the lèse-majesté law on a temple in the capital city last year.

They face up to seven years in prison for doing their job. Thai journalists Nutthaphol Meksobhon, a reporter for the independent news website Prachatai, and Natthaphon Phanphongsanon, a freelance photographer, have been charged with "collaborating in the vandalism of a historical site". The case relates to their publication of a report on graffiti painted by a political activist on the wall of a temple in March 2023, that displayed an anarchist symbol and crossed out the number 112, related to the lese-majeste law.

The two journalists were released on bail on 14 February 2024 after spending a night in custody in the capital of Thailand, Bangkok. They are accused of violating the Cleanliness Act and the Ancient Monuments Act, for which they face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a fine of 700,000 baht (18,000 euros). No date has been announced for their upcoming trial.

“Charging journalists with vandalism when they were simply reporting on facts appears to be a ploy by the Thai authorities to dissuade them from reporting on criticism of the monarchy. We urge the government to drop these absurd charges and stop harassing journalists reporting on issues related to the monarchy," said Cédric Alviani, RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau Director

In Thailand, the crime of lese-majeste is regularly used to imprison voices critical of the monarchy. This provision is vaguely defined by Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code, which provides for a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment for anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, or the Heir-apparent".

Thailand is ranked 106th out of 180 countries in the 2023 RSF World Press Freedom Index, up 34 places from 2020.

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Cartoon by Stephff: Thaksin is back home

23. February 2024

Cartoon by Stephff: Thaksin is back home

 

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Parliament rejects MFP’s gender recognition bill

23. February 2024

Parliament on Wednesday (21 February) voted to reject the Move Forward Party (MFP)’s Gender Recognition bill, which proposed to allow trans and non-binary people to change gender markers on their official documents to match their identity.

Participants in the 4 June 2023 Pride Parade holding trans pride flags. (File photo)

During the session, Pheu Thai MP Akaranun Khankittinan asked the MFP to withdraw the bill to wait for other bills on the same subject to be introduced to parliament. MFP MP Tanyawaj Kamolwongwat replied that other sectors can participate in the legislative process in committee. He also asked the Cabinet whether the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MDES) had made any progress in drafting their own gender recognition bill, noting that calls for the bill have been made since 2016.

With 154 votes for and 257 votes against, parliament rejected the bill. Tanyawaj said after the vote that the rejection means MFP will not be allowed to propose another bill on the same subject to parliament during the current session, but the party will try again in the next session.

“Are you going to give rights to LGBTQ people or not? Whether it is specifically designed welfare, many other laws that must be inclusive of diversity, or eliminating discrimination, are you still going to do it?” He asked.

“The Move Forward Party stands with LGBTQ people. We will definitely keep going, because we know we have to fight for it.”

Called the Gender Recognition, Gender Titles, and Protection of Gender Diversity Bill, it would allow trans and non-binary people to change gender markers on their official documents, provided that they are Thai citizens who have not been charged with or convicted of sexual crimes or human trafficking and are not listed in an international crime database on sexual offences or human trafficking. If the person requesting gender recognition is under 18 years of age, they would need to submit a certificate from a psychiatrist and or obtain parental consent.

Under this bill, trans people would be able to change their gender marker to match their identity, while non-binary people would be free to use the marker “Gender Diverse.”

The bill would also protect the rights of trans and non-binary people to healthcare, labour protection, abortion, and the use of public space as the gender they are recognised as. It would require the Department of Corrections to detain a trans person who has undergone gender confirmation surgery at a facility that matches their gender identity  Trans people who have not undergone surgery would be detained at facilities in accordance with the gender they were assigned at birth. Non-binary people would also be detained at facilities in accordance with their birth genders but would be segregated to assure their safety.

The bill would prohibit doctors from performing sex selective surgery on intersex babies. Parents would also be prohibited from authorising such surgery, unless they had been advised by a doctor that the procedure was needed to save the child’s life. Birth certificates of intersex children would not list their gender.  Instead, they would have the right to choose a gender marker when they turn 7, or 15 if they have not done so earlier. They would also be able to request a court order to change to their gender marker after they had already chosen one.

The bill lists penalties for filing false documents and issuing false certificates, as well as for changing gender markers to avoid military conscription, or receive benefits under women’s rights or gender equality promotion schemes.

A civil society network has also launched a petition to introduce a gender recognition bill to parliament. Called the Recognition of Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristic Bill, or “GEN-ACT” for short, it would give people 15 years or older the right to change their gender markers without requiring medical transition, such as gender confirmation surgery, hormonal treatment, or any psychiatric treatment. Registration officials would be prohibited from requesting medical certificates or documentation beyond whatever is stipulated by the bill and subsequent ministerial regulations. Children younger than 15 would be permitted to change their gender markers with the consent of their parents or legal guardians, or by a court order if the parent or guardian does not give consent.

It would allow non-binary or intersex people to use the gender-neutral marker Other/X and not be required to place a gendered title before their name, as well as prohibit sex selective surgery to be performed on intersex children without the child’s consent through a legal representative.

As of 23 February, the petition has 11,073 signatures, therefore meeting the legal requirement of 10,000 signatures for it to be introduced to parliament.

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ICJ: Thai authorities fell short in implementing the Anti-torture and Enforced Disappearance Act

23. February 2024

As Thailand marks today the first anniversary of the entry into force of the groundbreaking Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) calls on the Thai authorities to do much more to make its protections real in practice. While welcoming the implementation of certain preventive measures contained in the Act, the ICJ is concerned at the failure to provide proper training for responsible authorities on enforcement and to ensure prompt, thorough, and effective investigation and prosecutions in cases of alleged torture and enforced disappearances.

Prosecution of allegations of torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances

“Thailand has a poor track record when it comes to providing redress and accountability for victims of the crimes of torture and enforced disappearance, and this legislation was meant to correct this failure. Yet one year has passed and to our knowledge only a single case of alleged ill-treatment has reached the court, despite numerous allegations of abuse, with little information provided to the public,” said Melissa Upreti, ICJ Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

The first case under the Act was submitted to the Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases, Region V, on 27 December 2023. It involved a military conscript who died from septicemia following reports of sickness and injuries sustained during a training exercise. The public prosecutor indicted two military trainers for committing cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 6 of the Act.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of November 2023, since the Act came into force, there had been 57 complaints involving 27 allegations of torture, six allegations of enforced disappearance, and 24 allegations of ill-treatment falling short of torture, with investigations ceasing in 4 cases and 53 cases pending. No reports have been made available to the public regarding the nature of these cases or their prosecution under the Act.

The recognition of enforced disappearance as a continuous crime

One consequence of the continuing character of enforced disappearance, as recognized under Article 7 of the Act, is that it is possible to prosecute someone for enforced disappearance based on a legal instrument enacted after the disappearance began, since the crimes continue as long as an alleged victim’s fate or whereabouts remain unclarified.

Yet while the Act recognizes enforced disappearance as a continuous crime, very little information has been shared with the public or communicated to the families of victims in cases that occurred before the enactment of this law, where the fate and whereabouts of victims remain unknown.

Between 1980 and August 2023, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances recorded and transmitted 93 cases of alleged enforced disappearance to Thailand. Currently, 77 of these cases remain unresolved.

Preventive measures

A year since its enactment, certain preventive measures have been introduced, including in the form of a regulation by the Committee on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance. This regulation includes provisions governing the audio and video recording of an arrest and while in custody until individuals are handed over to the inquiry officer or released, as well as procedures for informing the public prosecutors and administrative officers about the arrest and the required information that must be recorded during an arrest.

“Despite this small progress, there has been reported non-compliance among certain authorities, which must be addressed as a matter of high priority by increased training and strengthening the monitoring role of the Committee to ensure effective implementation of the law and its regulations,” said Upreti.

Civil society organizations have reported instances where law enforcement officers conducted arrests without audio and video recording, or have sought consent from arrested individuals to delete video and audio records, in violation of the regulation.

Another regulation is currently being considered by the Committee to provide a framework for effective remedies, including compensation and other forms of reparation. The ICJ has called for its finalization in full compliance with Thailand’s international human rights obligations, following consultations with affected groups and victims, to ensure effective access to appropriate remedies.

Becoming a party to other treaties

“Thailand should further commit to international human rights standards protecting against torture, ill-treatment, and enforced disappearance, including by immediately ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) without reservations and acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OP-CAT),” added Upreti.

Thailand signed the ICPPED on 9 January 2012. On 10 March 2017, the then National Legislative Assembly voted in favor of ratifying the ICPPED. However, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the ICJ that ratification of the ICPPED would be delayed until domestic legislation was enacted to give effect to the treaty, a process that has already been completed.

Thailand has repeatedly reiterated its commitment, including during the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in 2021, by accepting recommendations regarding the ratification of the ICPPED and the OP-CAT by the UN Human Rights Council.

The OP-CAT would require Thailand to allow visits to places where people are deprived of liberty by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and to establish the national preventive mechanisms to make such visits.

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Statement on the arrest of a Prachatai reporter Nutthaphol Meksobhon

23. February 2024

On 12 February, the police arrested a reporter and a photographer for “being accomplices” in damaging a historic site, based on the fact that they covered an incident on 28 March 2023 when a 25-year-old activist sprayed an anarchist symbol and the number 112, with a strike through it, onto the wall of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. One of those arrested was Prachatai reporter Nutthaphol Meksobhon. His arrest warrant was issued on 22 May 2023 and had never received a summons prior to being arrested.

When he was arrested, Nutthaphol was restrained with cable ties. While in police custody, he was detained at Chalongkrung Police Station and the photographer was held at Thung Song Hong Police Station, both of which are far from Phra Ratchawang (Royal Palace) Police Station, under whose jurisdiction the charges against them were filed. During the past week, the arrest of Nutthaphol led to criticism of both the authorities and Prachatai.

The Prachatai editorial team has issued the following statement:

  1. Nuttaphol’s coverage of the incident is in line with professional standards and Prachatai’s code of conduct.
  2. Nutthaphol had been given permission by the Prachatai editor to follow the lead sent by the activist and to cover the activity, both on 27 March 2023 when the activist cancelled the activity and on 28 March 2023 when the incident in question took place.
  3. Regarding Nutthaphol’s employment status, he remains a full-time Prachatai reporter.
  4. Prachatai will cover all of Nutthaphol’s legal fees throughout the process.
  5. Prachatai will use every possible channel, including the judicial process, to demand justice for Nutthaphol and to protect Nutthaphol’s work and reputation.

An argument can be made that members of the press can make mistakes and that the media can be investigated through the normal processes. We agree with the view that the media can do wrong, and we encourage the public to be critical towards the media. However, we believe that making an arrest 9 months after the warrant was issued and without first issuing a summons is not a normal investigation process. Allowing such charges to become a new standard will also impact the process of news coverage, particularly for field reporters, photographers, and media practitioners.

Not only was press freedom violated in the case of the reporter and photographer. Recently, members of the press have faced Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Those facing such lawsuits include full-time media professionals, independent media professionals, and citizen journalists or members of the public exercising their right to publish information. The latter groups are particularly vulnerable, often facing threats and physical assault.

Prachatai calls on media professional organizations, human rights protection agencies, members of the press, as well as members of the public to be aware of the situation and not to allow these procedures to become a standard or a new normal that limits press freedom and the public’s freedom of information, since this will affect not only media professionals but also the citizens who receive information or who wish to become communicators themselves.

“Press freedom is the people’s freedom”
Prachatai editorial team
21 February 2024

 

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Rights groups call for an end to judicial harassment against activists and journalists

23. February 2024

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS has issued a statement raising concerns about the Thai government's prosecution of activists and journalists. They also called the Thai government to drop charges against activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, end its practice of judicial harassment, and review and repeal its repressive laws.

Activists protesting at the Victory Monument in Bangkok on 18 February to demand the release of political prisoners.
(Photo by Ginger Cat)

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS are deeply concerned over the intensifying regression of Thailand’s civic space. We are calling on the Thai Government to do more in upholding fundamental freedoms including freedom of expression, press freedom, and freedom of peaceful assembly.

On 8 February 2024, pro-democracy youth activist Thanalop ‘Yok’ Phalanchai was arrested while protesting at the Bangkok South Criminal Court for political prisoners’ right to bail. The arrest was due to an outstanding warrant regarding a contempt of court charge based on an alleged altercation between activists and a court marshall in October 2023. Yok was later released after the Court reproached her. 

Yok had been previously arrested in March 2023–under the royal defamation law (lèse-majesté) of Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code–for rallying for the release of political detainees. She was detained for 50 days at a juvenile facility until May 2023. At only 15, Yok is one of the youngest children to be charged under the royal defamation law. 

Pro-democracy activist Netiporn ‘Bung’ Sanesangkhom was sentenced to one month in jail in January 2024 for also being involved in the October 2023 altercation. Bung was recently hospitalised following a two-week hunger strike calling for judicial reforms and stronger protection of people’s right to express political opinions.

Weaponizing judicial harassment

On 12 February 2024, journalist Nutthapol Meksobhon and photojournalist Nattaphon ‘Yha’ Phanphongsanon were arrested for their coverage of a graffiti incident way back in March 2023, wherein anti-royal defamation law symbols were spray painted on the wall of Bangkok's Temple of the Emerald within the Grand Palace complex.

Meksobhon works for Prachatai, an independent online news organisation. The two were charged for being accomplices to public vandalism and damaging a historical site. They were later released on bail after posting a 35,000 baht (USD 980) bond each.  

Meanwhile on 13 February, activists Tantawan ‘Tawan’ Tuatulanon and Natthanon ‘Frank’ Chaiamahabut were arrested on charges of sedition, violation of the Computer Crimes Act, and  public disturbance for allegedly honking during a royal motorcade. The two clarified that they had no intention of disrupting the royal motorcade. Both have been denied bail, are currently remanded in prison, and have been subjected to online hate speech. In response to the incident, royallist groups–including government officials–organised a purple rally supporting the royal family. 

In the same week, several courts dismissed bail petitions for 11 political prisoners who have been under pre-trial detention for over a year. The dismissal came amidst a petition–led by civil society organisations–to ask the parliament to consider a draft Amnesty for the People Bill, which seeks to end all politically motivated charges and grant amnesty to those with pending legal cases related to their political expression. Some volunteers who have been collecting signatures for the petition have also faced harassment from the police. 

As of January 2024, at least 1,947 individuals have been prosecuted for their political participation and expression in Thailand including 263 people facing royal defamation charges, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Call to action

Pro-democracy and youth activists should not be intimidated nor punished for exercising their right to express political opinions. Prosecuting minors under such grounds is a direct contravention of Thailand’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Furthermore, journalists should not be prosecuted for simply doing their jobs. Media workers are instrumental in exposing injustices, demanding accountability, and preserving people’s right to information. Prosecuting journalists for their coverage on the ground creates a chilling effect on press freedom in the country. 

As a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Thailand is obliged to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of its people. 

The ongoing deterioration of Thailand’s civic space must be urgently addressed as the country  is moving to pledge its candidacy to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) for the 2025-2027 term. As a potential HRC member, Thailand must uphold higher standards of fulfilling its human rights obligations. 

FORUM-ASIA and CIVICUS urge the Thai Government to cease the practice of repressing the people’s political participation and expression through judicial harassment. The government should review and repeal its repressive laws. Likewise, it must drop politically-motivated and false charges against activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and anyone expressing political dissent.

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