Two Thai journalists arrested for covering anti-monarchist vandalism of temple wall freed on bail

BANGKOK (AP) — Two Thai journalists arrested for reporting on the vandalism of Bangkok temple wall with graffiti criticizing a pro-monarchy law were released on bail Tuesday, a lawyer’s group said.

The arrests, carried out separately on Monday, nearly a year after the incident, drew widespread criticism and raised concerns from several right groups over the state of media freedom in Thailand.

The Royal Palace police station, which made the arrests, said Nutthaphol Meksobhon, a reporter for the independent online media Prachatai, and Natthapon Phanphongsanon, a freelance photographer, were charged with collaborating in vandalizing an historical site. Nutthaphol wrote a story and Natthapon took a video of the incident, which was widely reported.

The offense is punishable by up to seven years in prison and a 700,000 baht ($19,600) fine.

The two arrested men have said they were only carrying out their jobs as journalists.

The charges involve a March 28, 2023, incident in which a 25-year-old activist spray-painted an anarchist symbol and the number 112 with a line through it on the exterior wall of the revered Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is in the Grand Palace complex.

The number 112 refers to an article in Thailand’s Criminal Code that makes it illegal to insult the monarchy and carries a prison term of three to 15 years. Critics say the law is often used as a tool to quash political dissent.

Student-led pro-democracy protests beginning in 2020 openly criticized the monarchy, previously a taboo subject, leading to vigorous prosecutions under the law, which had previously been infrequently employed.

Amnesty International Thailand director Piyanut Kotsan called the arrests a “direct violation of media freedom.”

The Thai Journalists Association said the charge of acting in support of a criminal act undermines the rights and freedoms of the media in performing its duties.

Prachatai reports extensively on Thailand’s political issues, including sensitive topics involving the royal family and the military that major media outlets in Thailand often avoid.

The group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said the two journalists were held overnight at separate police stations after their arrests and were taken on Tuesday to Bangkok Criminal Court, where they were released on bail after posting a bond of 35,000 baht ($980) each.

Tewarit Maneechai, the editor-in-chief of Prachatai, called the arrests “an act of intimidation” that creates fear and uncertainty when reporters cover sensitive incidents if their coverage can be interpreted as an act supporting a criminal offense. “It might lead to more self-censorship,” he said, “The impact is not only on the media but also on the public who will be deprived of news and information.”

When asked about the case after his weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said his government upholds the importance of media freedom, but it’s up to security officials and the police to investigate whether the journalists committed any crimes.