After flying from Phnom Penh to Bangkok sometime around noon on October 2, Belgian journalist Kris Janssens awoke at 6.45am the following day to find five undercover police officers in his guest house waiting to escort him to their office.
“The only thing they said was that I had to follow them to the office,” Mr Janssens said, noting he ended up waiting several hours before receiving an explanation for the detention. Mr Janssens noted he was interrogated in a bid to establish the purpose of his visit.
“I said I want to meet some friends here, which was true, but then it came down to the fact that they knew that I was supposed to meet a political activist, that I’m in touch with him using Facebook and Messenger and they tracked our conversation or they knew that I was coming and did not want me to meet this activist or get involved in politics whatsoever,” Mr Janssens said from his Bangkok hotel room.
The pro-democracy activist he had hoped to meet, Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich, has become a prominent critic of the Thai military junta and because of his activism, he has been assaulted twice.
Human Rights Watch in May suggested that the lack of arrests following an investigation into the assault points to the involvement of the Thai government.
“I think they are quite nervous and they are afraid that Bangkok will become a second Hong Kong, so there will be mass demonstrations and apparently they have enough people who work for them to track everything and everyone down and to stop me before I could meet this activist,” Mr Janssens said.
After his release, Janssens contacted the Belgian embassy and met the ambassador, but declined an offer to stay at the ambassador’s residence in Bangkok.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok issued a statement expressing concern over the handling of the situation.
“It is deeply disturbing when authorities anywhere try to dictate who foreign journalists should or should not interview…The Thai government should continue to allow foreign journalists to report on political issues here without facing threats of unspecified legal action,” it said.
Mr Janssens, who has reported across the region, including Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia where he now resides, said this is not the first time he has been stopped by police for his work, but is the first time he has been prevented from doing his job by local authorities.
“This has always been a sensitive topic, but they [the Thai government] are afraid or they are nervous because of this Asean summit – they don’t want anyone to use this occasion to start riots or have a mass demonstration,” he said.
He noted that he was granted assurances he could remain in Thailand until his scheduled return flight to Phnom Penh on October 12th – provided he didn’t get involved in politics.
“If people all around the world can see images of mass demonstrations on TV on a daily basis then they would not come to Thailand any more and tourism is of course a very important source of income,” he said, musing on why he was detained.
“Governments here want to control things in a sometimes counterproductive way, but by trying to hide something they attract more attention to stories like this one than if they would just let journalists do their jobs,” he added.