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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 16:36 GMT
Eyewitness: Thai media intimidation
25/10/2004 Thai security forces take handcuffed Muslims to a waiting truck at Takbai district
The authorities were criticised for their handling of the Takbai incident
As violence continues to sweep southern Thailand, journalists are also suffering, says the BBC's Nualnoi Thammasathien, who writes here of the intimidation she has met with as a result of her reports.

I was reporting in Thailand at the time of the Takbai incident on 25 October, in which protesters were piled on top of each other in military trucks, and 78 of them died, many from suffocation.

Two weeks later, still in the country, I was surfing the airwaves when I suddenly heard a programme mentioning the BBC.

I heard the two male presenters talk about how the media could undermine the country in a time of crisis.

The next thing I heard was them mentioning my name as a journalist who had done damage to national unity with my 'unpatriotic reports' on the incident.

'She has interviewed people whom she shouldn't have interviewed,' said one of the presenters, a freelancer who had hired airtime on a national radio channel which belongs to the Thai parliament.

I assume they were referring to my attempts to talk, not just to government officials and Buddhists, but to Muslims in the south, whom the authorities regard as being at the heart of the violence.

The presenters invited their audience to write to and call the BBC to complain about me and my reports
Nualnoi Thammasathien
They did not discuss any of my reports in detail, nor did they elaborate on the weaknesses or faults in them. I found it absurd for someone to criticise another's work without giving a shred of evidence.

But they did give their audience some information about my background, saying that after I had worked as a reporter in the country for some time, I 'fled the country', apparently for no particular reason.

They even mentioned, casually: 'Well, we do quite understand it really. Since she took the money from the outsiders she has to do it.'

This was a serious accusation, since for many people, taking money from outsiders in order to act in an unpatriotic fashion is tantamount to a crime against the nation.

Arranging a protest

The presenters invited their audience to write to and call the BBC to complain about me and my reports. They gave out what they thought were the BBC's telephone numbers, but apparently they got them wrong.

They also criticised human rights activists, the UN and those senators who have tried to investigate the Takbai incident.

Then the presenters and the listeners who called into the programme discussed how to arrange a protest against any representative of the UN who would want to visit Thailand to investigate the incident.

The tone of the programme sounded very extreme. It reminded me of the atmosphere leading up to the massacre of student activists at Thammasat University in October 1976, when soldiers killed students whom they thought were a communist threat.

And, to my horror, the presenters also stated clearly to their listeners that I was in fact staying in the country "at this moment"'.

To me, that was a clear case of intimidation.

But many other reporters are also in a difficult position. Some have responded with self-censorship, for example by suddenly switching their focus from the suffering of Thai Muslims to the suffering of Thai Buddhists, or by simply burying reports well within the inside pages.

They [southern Muslims] deserve to die. They're the ones who do the routine hit and run killing and then hide behind their sarongs.
Bangkok taxi driver
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has also reportedly threatened to have anyone disseminating the video footage of the detention of 1,300 Muslim protesters on the day of the Takbai incident arrested.

Some of those who have seen the video say it contains brutal and humiliating scenes of the security forces handling the detainees.

A number of people tried to organise a public showing of the video, but were told by the authorities to cancel their plans. An opposition politician, Thanin Jaisamut, who has done so, has been called in for questioning by the police.

Thai officials insist the video has been manipulated to make it appear that the soldiers brutally suppressed the protesters - and that is why the authorities have had to ban it.

Changing attitudes

But banning the video is only part of a wider attempt to stop the public from searching for the truth.

On the very day of the Takbai incident, a senior army commander in charge of the operation to disperse the protest told local reporters that they needed to keep the news among themselves.

As a result of all this, Muslims in the south are gaining a new kind of image.

"They [southern Muslims] deserve to die," a taxi driver in Bangkok told me. "They're the ones who do the routine hit and run killing and then hide behind their sarongs."

I have heard many other members of the Thai public express similar views.

Such hardening attitudes will certainly play into the hands of extremists like those who singled out my name in their radio programme.



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