Pravit Rojanaphruk, 49, is a senior staff writer at Khaosod English who for over 20 years worked as The Nation’s star reporter. On Aug 1, he received a phone call from the Tech Crime Suppression Police, telling him that they were pressing charges against him for Facebook posts made in 2016 and early 2017. He now faces 14 years in jail for sedition. Known for his brave journalism and critique of the current military regime, Pravit has twice been put in “attitude adjustment” camp, once in 2014 and again in 2015. Here, he discusses those experiences and the state of freedom of expression in Thailand.
Being a journalist wasn’t really on my mind when I was young. My father was a diplomat and would have to read all these magazines, so I just picked them up and read.
My first real exposure to covering politics came during Black May 1992 [when General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s crackdown on protesters resulted in 52 official deaths]. For so many years before that I was just doing social issues rather than hardcore politics.
On the day of the coup [May 22, 2014], The International New York Times happened to quote my column at The Nation criticizing martial law. The following day, I gave a series of interviews regarding it. The international audience wanted to know about Prayuth. This is how I began to gain more attention from the military.
Two days after the coup, every television and radio station read out my name alone, saying I was to report to the NCPO at the Royal Army Conference Room.
I left my phone with an official at the United Nations [and turned myself in].
During my first attitude adjustment session, I was taken care of quite well, actually, besides the fact that I didn’t have the freedom to leave the camp. They would ask you what you thought of the coup and if you gave them the right answer they would let you go after three days.
I kept on giving them the same answer: that I disagreed with the coup and that it would create more mess for Thailand. They kept me there for seven full days, the maximum allowed under law.
Without tweeting for six days, I had gained 6,000 new followers. It became clear that they were very worried about my use of social media.
My second session of attitude adjustment [Sep 2015] was a nasty experience. They were polite but there was definitely a sense of hostility. I was taken blindfolded in the middle of the night. I didn’t know if I would survive, my life was at their mercy. No one could have known that the van belonged to the military.
I was kept in a 4x4 meter room with no witness to the outside world. I begged them to take me out for fresh air but they wouldn’t do that without me being blindfolded. They didn’t tell me what would happen to me and I was kept there for two nights.
This is a society unable to deal with different opinions. We have to learn to sort political disagreement out in a peaceful way that it doesn’t resort to tearing down the constitution or calling in the military.
You can’t teach people to do something without doing it yourself first. It’s the same with freedom of expression. You defend freedom of expression by expressing yourself and taking a stand, and being willing to pay a price for it.
I now have to be more careful. There is a gray area. Because nobody knows where the line is, I just have to be a little more conscious when posting something. Chances are you will end up censoring yourself more and more, and that’s the chilling effect.
It would be a cowardly act for me to crawl to the military regime. I’ve fought for three years, and many people have given up—“let’s just sit and wait for an election”—but I cannot let myself do that. I cannot allow them to normalize this kind of repression.
Journalists cannot defend press freedom if we do not go out of our way to defend freedom of expression to the general public. There is a lot of self-censorship going on, both induced by the military regime as well as initiated by the press themselves, and the public is not aware of this.
The struggle will continue, but the military regime will not allow that. They believe they’ve handled the press well enough, but the last frontier that they can’t conquer is social media.