British journalist arrested at Thai airport for carrying ‘war weapons’

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins its affiliate the National Union of Journalists of Thailand (NUJT) in condemning the arrest and detention of British journalist Tony Cheng, at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport on May 29, 2017. The IFJ calls for the investigation to be dropped and Cheng’s passport to be returned.

On May 29, Cheng from China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, and fellow journalist Florian Witulski, were transiting through Thailand, to report from the city of Mosul in Iraq. Cheng was detained at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport after authorities found he was carrying a gas mask and plates for a bullet proof vest. Cheng was detained for violating Thailand’s Arms Control Act, which classifies gas masks and bullet proof vests as ‘war weapons’ and requires a license to carry them. The maximum punishment under the law is five years in jail.

Cheng was held in a cell at the airport overnight. On the afternoon of May 30, Cheng was charged under the Arm’s Control Act. His wife posted 100,000 baht (USD 3,000) bail and he agreed to forfeit his passport. In a statement from his cell at the airport, Cheng said that the plates and gas mask were "for use in Mosul where ISIS is well documented to be using gas."

In statement, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) said: “Some journalists based in Thailand have to cover armed conflicts in other countries, and are required by their employers and insurers to travel with adequate protective equipment. Under the current implementation of the 1987 law, they are presented with an invidious choice: break Thai law or increase the risk to life and limb. It is worth recalling that two foreign journalists were killed in the violence in Bangkok in 2010; both might have survived had they been wearing body armour. The FCCT urges the Thai authorities to drop the charges against Tony Cheng, and to find a way going forward whereby journalists are able to carry the equipment they need to protect themselves.”

This is not the first instance of the narrow interpretation of the Arms Control Act. In 2015, Hong Kong journalist, Kwan ‘Anthony’ Hok-Chun was arrested on the tarmac at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi as he was waiting to depart Thailand, after authorities found a bullet proof vest in his luggage. Kwan had been in Thailand covering the bombing at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine and was carrying the bullet-proof vest under instruction of his employer as a safety protection in the field. He was immediately detained and held for three months without charge.

The IFJ said: “The fact that journalists are not being allowed to carry equipment to protect themselves on assignment is an attack on press freedom and the right to report. Journalists and media are often working in some of the most dangerous situations, as was the case for Tony Cheng, and this equipment can serve to lessen the dangers they face. The fact that journalists in Thailand must choose between their safety or going to jail is a dangerous precedent.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0946 

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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