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Don’t tell the King: The increasing danger of reporting in Thailand

The book The King Never Smiles, by Paul Handley, was banned in Thailand. The book The King Never Smiles, by Paul Handley, was banned in Thailand.

One unforgettable wire photo from 1985 shows the leaders of an attempted military coup on their knees before the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej who was symbolically brokering an end to unrest sparked by the coup. There was only one death in the coup attempt: cameraman Neil Davis who filmed the soldier who shot him.

Many FCC members have from time to time been based in Bangkok covering the turbulent political events played out on Bangkok streets since the 1980s. Whether coups (10 before 1980 and 10 since) or Red and yellow-shirt protests. The most recent coup in 2014 has led to an unprecedented crackdown on journalists, TV and Internet news programmes as well as a strict application of the lese majeste laws against social media.

Foreign correspondents have always trod warily around lese majeste, though some of their publications got into strife when they inadvertently did not place a photo of the King at the top of a page, or had someone else’s photo on top of his.

The former Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, well known for treading on toes throughout Asia, was very careful in its coverage of one of the King’s periodic walkabout tours of the Thai countryside in the mid-80s by the then editor (and former FCC president) Derek Davies. This celebrated cover story was about the King visiting carefully selected villages to listen to problems and hand out purples (Baht500 notes).

However, many of the Review’s Bangkok-based correspondents skirted the law on a number of occasions particularly when speculating about the unpopular heir-apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. One of those correspondents was Paul Handley (1987-1994) who later wrote the book The King Never Smiles, released in 2006 – which was banned in Thailand even before it was published. The book asserted that the King, widely seen as beneficent, apolitical and a living Buddha, was “deeply political, autocratic, and even brutal” and linked to big business and the Thai military.

Thai officials blocked access to the book’s page on the publisher Yale University Press’ website and at as the “contents could affect national security and the good morality of the people”.

Later two state-run university bookshops removed books that referenced Handley’s book. In October 2011, Thai-born American Joe Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for defaming the royal family by translating sections of the book into Thai and posting them online. He was pardoned eight months later.

Some of the most recent arrests for lese majeste have been made over posts on social media sites: A man faces 15 years in jail for posting images on Facebook of the King’s favourite dog in a way that mocked the king, according to the prosecutor; a cleaning lady is being charged for posting the words “I see” in an exchange on Facebook between her and a political activist that police say had defamatory comments; in May Patnaree Chankij, a mother of a prominent pro-democracy activist was charged for failing to criticise or take action on Facebook messages that were sent to her account by her son’s friend; and even hitting the “like” button on Facebook on a post that is deemed offensive to the king has led to people being charged under Article 112.

Earlier, Jonathan Head, BBC correspondent and FCC Thailand vice-president, in May 2008 was  accused of lese majeste three times: for writing articles about the alleged support for the People’s Alliance for Democracy by members of the royal family; writing that the Crown Prince might find it difficult to “fill his father’s shoes”; and allowing a picture of a politician to be placed above a picture of the King on a BBC web page.

Social activist and former magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was jailed in 2013 for 10 years over two articles deemed offensive to the royal family.

AFP beachhead in North Korea

Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

Agence France-Presse’s new bureau in Pyongyang, which opened in September, is already churning out the stories.

The bureau, which was officially opened by Emmanuel Hoog, the group’s chief executive and chairman, so far has been focusing on producing video and photographic content.

It was able to open following an agreement made earlier in the year between AFP and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), following “about 10 rounds of negotiations that began in 2012”, said Philippe Massonnet, AFP’s Asia-Pacific regional director.

“Not that there was any resistance by the authorities, but it was only a matter of time as we were not only dealing with KCNA, but other government departments as well.”

The Pyongyang bureau will be staffed by a locally hired videographer and a photographer, who will work in conjunction with visiting foreign correspondents, which mirrors what other international news bureaux, including the Associated Press, Xinhua, Ria Novosti and Japan’s Kyodo News. AP opened the first foreign bureau in 2012.

As a big international newsagency “we have to be wherever we can”, Massonnet said. “For us, it is normal and natural to open an office in North Korea, as we open offices everywhere in the world – in some we cannot employ locals, in others it’s foreigners.”

With North Korea’s total media censorship and control it must be a struggle for the locally hired staff to function properly for foreign media – even with training.  “We brought the North Korean staff to Hong Kong in August for training sessions about how AFP works as well as going on shoots to take care of the practical aspects,” Massonnet said. “The two were competent and open and enthusiastic about the training and even though they were accompanied by an KCNA official the training was unsupervised.

The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP

“We had worked with the same official before during the negotiations and got on well, so we took the opportunity to show him how we deal with photo and video stories from other countries – which he found interesting even though he acknowledged that many of those types of stories would not be done by KCNA.”

AFP’s Seoul bureau chief will run the bureau while teams from South Korea, Hong Kong or China will be sent every two months or so as part of the deal. “So far, we sent a team in July, again in September and another is planned for November,” he said. “There are no visa problems and now the visas are issued in Hong Kong rather than having to go via Beijing.”

The November mission we will try to get, among others, the August flood aftermath story, but it is difficult – or at least time consuming – to get approval. “Typically, we submit a list of say 20 potential stories in the hope of getting five or six to run with.”

So far the Pyongyang team has been involved in stock footage shoots of the capital as well as getting on the streets and train stations and the like; or reacting when someone noteworthy visits Pyongyang. “We did cover the 15th Pyongyang International Film festival [brainchild of the cinema-obsessed “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-ll in September.

“It’s really a way of showing as much as we can about what’s happening in Pyongyang. Many of our clients – particularly in South Korea and Japan – want as many images as they can get from the country.”

In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

One of the ways the AFP team gets around in North Korea is to work with NGOs, “often going to places that are normally difficult for journalists to get to”. A case in point is that they were able to cover the floods in North Hamgyong province, where some 140 people were killed and 35,000 homes destroyed, by being part of an NGO team. “It enabled us to get some great footage,” he said.

Everything produced by AFP in North Korea will be edited by AFP people, mainly at the  regional headquarters in Hong Kong. “There is no difference from anywhere else in the region where we have people taking photos or videos or writing stories. They send their material to Hong Kong, and it will be exactly the same for North Korean stories.”

As in other countries where AFP operates there is official monitoring. “But monitoring is not a problem. It would be a problem if we were censored. The big issue for us is to go there and to report or shoot what we see… and this job won’t be much different than the one we do in
other countries where it is difficult to work.”

Once a story is finished and on the “wires” that might be another story. “So far we have had no negative feedback from government officials,” Massonnet said. “We will see where the limits are of what is possible to do and what is not. If we think it is worth doing and reporting about, then we will do it. It may be difficult sometimes, but that doesn’t prevent us from working and getting good material.”

Apart from a few big occasions such as mass rallies and big celebrations, foreign media don’t report from North Korea very often. “So we have a very rare opportunity to be there every month and to deliver content to our Asian clients who have big expectations about our North Korea coverage.”

Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013. North Korea mounted its largest ever military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War, displaying its long-range missiles at a ceremony presided over by leader Kim Jong-Un. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013.  AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

Massonnet likened the Pyongyang experience with Beijing in the 70s and 80s when correspondents had no official contacts or news sources and had to rely on what they saw in the streets as reporting beyond the city was all but impossible. However, when the big story came – China opening up – the resident bureaux could move fast.

“It makes sense to be in Pyongyang, not only because we don’t have much competition from the few journalists who go there, but also there are some opportunities to make connections so that you are ready when the big story breaks,” he said.

Massonnet said that even today in China, how many sources are there within the Chinese Communist Party to cover real political stories? You are left with the economic stories and speculation.

“The opening of an AFP bureau in Pyongyang will further strengthen the agency’s international network,” said the AFP chief executive, Emmanuel Hoog at the opening ceremony. “AFP’s role is to be present everywhere in the world in order to fulfil its news mission as completely as possible, in particular through images.”

AFP – which is a public company but governed by a board of representatives from French news organisations and the government – has 200 bureaux across 150 countries.

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