Media intimidation risks trust in govt

Swift and drastic police action against a journalist who was covering a case of an ex-police chief's unusual wealth gives the strong impression that the authorities are using power to intimidate the media in order to serve influential figures.

Natthaporn Weeranun, a reporter for the web-based Isra News Agency, has been charged with trespassing after entering an apartment believed to belong to Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwon, former police chief and younger brother of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.

Pol Gen Patcharawat, who is now a member of the coup-installed National Legislative Assembly (NLA), has faced a probe conducted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) regarding his alleged unusual wealth.

The police action in the case prompted the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) to issue a statement condemning those involved in the charge against the 28-year-old reporter, well known for his dedication to investigative reporting.

The TJA alleged that police action was not conducted in compliance with judicial procedures and was aimed at serving the powers-that-be.

Natthaporn was detained by Phahon Yothin police on Wednesday for allegedly intruding on the property, called Kae Kai Apartment, on Phahon Yothin Soi 32 in Bangkok's Chatuchak district.

The apartment is thought by the news agency to belong to Pol Gen Patcharawat and his wife, Somthavil Wongsuwon.

According to Isra News Agency, Natthaporn, who had been assigned to cover the case, entered the apartment and informed a woman that he wanted to interview Ms Somthavil. While he was waiting as instructed by the woman, police turned up and took him to Phahon Yothin Police Station.

The reporter said he was initially told that police wanted to interview him, but it turned out that they charged him with trespassing.

He was detained and later released on 15,000-baht bail. Police said they would decide on Sept 1 if the reporter would be indicted.

Police told the reporter that they acted on the request of complainants who wanted the media to stay away from the case. They refused to name the complainants.

Pol Gen Patcharawat, who has remained quiet since the scandal flared up, retired from police service in 2009, the same year that the NACC launched a probe against him.

The anti-graft body sought to find out if the former police chief had run a resort and other businesses under the names of his wife and children.

Before Natthaporn's arrest, Isra News Agency ran a story on a resort in tambon Bang Phi Noi of Samut Prakan's Bang Bo district.

The resort was built by a company, Somthavil Resort Co, was which was registered on Jan 8, 2009. Pol Gen Patcharawat's wife and two children are the company shareholders.

The NACC is to look into an allegation that the ex-police chief, together with his deputy, has a horse farm worth over 100 million of baht in Saraburi.

The charge against the journalist is unjustified and indicates excessive abuse of power given that the reporter had carried out his duty in an open manner and all for the public interest.

In doing his duty, Natthaporn did not trespass on a restricted area, destroy or steal anything in the apartment. Besides, he clearly introduced himself but police detained and charged him and confiscated his mobile phone.

This case is extraordinary and brings into question the moral standards of this society.

The NACC earlier admitted that there was little progress in Pol Gen Patcharawat's case because of a "shortage of manpower". But the excuse is not justifiable and may harm the agency's reputation if it is seen as bowing its head to the powers-that-be.

The graftbusters must do whatever they can to prove that it will not protect those in the wrong because of the status of the accused or it will lose public trust.

More importantly, this is another case that demonstrates the use of state power to intimidate the media. Given the blood ties between the accused and Gen Prawit, the most senior member of the National Council for Peace and Order, the military must be aware that its reputation is at stake.

Therefore the regime must act immediately and prove that it will not protect those in the wrong. That means the charge against the reporter must be halted.

The NCPO must also show its integrity and demonstrate that there is no effort to meddle in media work. Anything less would mean the regime is not worth the public's trust.

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