Journalists need protection too

Have sympathy for Anthony Kwan Hok-chun, a photo-journalist with Initium Media Technology in Hong Kong who had the innocent temerity to want to protect himself from harm with body armour while covering the recent bombing in Bangkok. Mr Kwan was stopped at Suvarnabhumi

Mr Kwan was stopped at Suvarnabhumi airport as he was about to board a Thai Airways flight back to Hong Kong after completing his assignment to cover the aftermath of the Aug 17 bombing at the Erawan Shrine, in which two Hong Kong citizens were killed.

Airport security officials found a bulletproof, or ballistic, vest and helmet in his carry-on baggage, items regarded as military equipment under Thai law. Their possession requires a licence.

Mr Kwan was detained and charged with illegal possession of military equipment, not weapons, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. He was later released on bail but forbidden to leave the country pending trial in a military court.

The photo-journalist claimed he did not know it was illegal to own body armour and a helmet without a licence. This is understandable. Many Thais, myself included, think it is all right to own and wear a bulletproof vest or helmet.

During the anti-government protests organised by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee over a year ago, some protesters were seen openly making home-made bulletproof vests from layers of X-ray films for sale, and I did not see any of them being arrested. Several local photographers and foreign correspondents were also seen wearing body armour while covering the protests, and none of them were arrested by the police.

Obviously, police have not been serious about enforcing the law regarding this so-called military equipment (not weapon). The police inaction, the lax law enforcement, led to the misunderstanding it is fine to own and wear this personnal body protection gear. Even at the Bangkok Post there are bulletproof vests for photographers venturing out into dangerous areas, such as violence-prone protest sites.

Elsewhere, bulletproof vests and helmets are standard protection for journalists working in war zones. There is no need of a permit or a licence from the authorities.

But not in Thailand it seems. There is this 1987 Arms Control Act. On top of that there is this National Council for Peace and Order No 84/2557 requiring that all people who stole or otherwise obtained protective gear from the authorities during protests in 2010 must return it to the state, or face criminal charges.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand issued a statement on Monday asking the authorities not to press criminal charges against Mr Kwan and to decriminalise the legitimate use of body armour and other relevant protective gear.

He was eventually released on bail, but the dropping of the charges may not be possible. There is a law against possessing body armour without a licence. Authorities cannot just drop the charges because a suspect says he was not aware of the existence of the law. They would risk being accused of misuse of authority and applying a double standard.

For the sake of law enforcement the case must proceed, but the prosecutor can exercise discretion and propose lenient punishment because of the defendant’s innocent ignorance of the law. The military court, too, can exercise similar discretion.

The law is primarily intended to prevent body armour from falling into the wrong hands, such as criminals and southern separatists.

If foreign correspondents and local journalists really want to wear such protection legitimately, then they should seek permission from the authorities. And the officials themselves should be more open-minded and accept the fact that journalists working in risky areas need to protect themselves too, just like members of the security forces do.

Mr Kwan’s case is not a big issue. It should be wrapped up quickly so that he can return home with no ill feelings against this country or the airport officials who so suddenly strictly enforced the law.