A Conversation with Pravit Rojanaphruk about the Right to Converse – the NCPO is ‘camouflaging’ their repression.


How many people would be willing to sacrifice to defend freedom of expression? 
One man who has answered a definite yes is Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of Thailand’s most prominent critical journalists. Pravit has worked as a journalist in Thailand nearly 3 decades, where his direct and fearless criticism of government has won him many admirers and detractors alike. He has worked for over 23 years at The Nation, one of the leading English newspapers in Thailand, but now works at Khaosod English, an online newspaper known for its liberal standpoint. He is also well-known for utilising the social media space to criticise military government, especially on Twitter. He has twice been forcibly detained in communicado at ‘attitude-adjustment’ camps after the May 2014 coup by the NCPO due to his frequent anti-junta criticism on personal social media. The immense pressure he and The Nation faced when he was detained led to his resignation. 
His critical reporting has not gone unnoticed as he was recently awarded the 2017 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. As recently as 8 July, 2017, he was charged by the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) for sedition and for violating the Computer-related Crimes Act due to his criticism of the NCPO on his Facebook account. The charges against him are part of an overarching repression of dissent by the NCPO as at least 65 people in 25 cases have been charged for sedition before him. 
In the days preceding his meeting with law enforcement officers at the TCSD office where he would be informed of his charges, iLaw conducted an in-depth interview with Pravit to ask him about the preparation for his current case, his wider analysis of repression that he and many other journalists faces, the motivations he has for his work, and his views on his unwavering belief in freedom of expression. 
You have been charged with 5 counts of sedition under Article 116 and Computer-related Crimes Act for a series of Facebook posts. Can you tell us more about the case?
I had a meeting with my legal representatives from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) to prepare for my upcoming meeting with the TCSD. Yoawalak Anuphan is my chief legal representative. First, we estimated the maximum penalty I could receive. Initially, it was thought that it would be 60 years, but we concluded that it is now ‘only’ 20 years. For 5 counts of sedition, the maximum sentence is 35 years (7 years per count) and for 5 counts of the Computer Crimes act, it is 25 years (5 years per count). However, under Article 91(2) of the Thai Criminal Code, in cases where there are combined charges, an offence which carries a maximum penalty (per count) of less than 10 years has a maximum sentence capped at 20 years. 
On Tuesday, I will be hearing the charges at the TCSD office. My response would be to plead for my innocence. Then, my legal team and I have 30 days to respond (my justification for my plea of innocence for not violating the sedition charges) to the police in writing. The police then have 2 weeks to decide whether to forward the case the Office of the Attorney-General. After that, the Prosecutor then has a month to decide whether it merits a court case. If it does, the prosecutor will forward it to a court and I will become a defendant.
What are your feelings and thoughts presently? 
I feel more relief as for the last few days, I was initially entertaining the possibility of spending 60 years of my life behind bars. Another relief is that if this case goes to trial, it will be tried by the civilian criminal court, not a military court. I am aware that similar cases were tried under military courts not so long ago. 
I am grouped in the same lot with Wattana Muangsook (former social development and human security minister) and Pichai Nariptaphan (former energy minister) despite the fact that my work does not associate with either of them. They have also been charged with sedition too. 
Disturbingly, none of the lawyers knew about legal precedence to prepare for sedition case. I think it is important to investigate further into this, as other defendants will benefit immensely from this knowledge. How is it possible that for the last 2 years, about 3 dozen people have been charged with sedition and we are still unsure of legal precedence? 
However, I was informed of another similar case where an individual was sentenced for a suspended sentence of a year for declaring the northern provinces of Thailand as a separate state. That situation might be one of the worst-case outcomes for me. 
Another source of relief is that under Section 116, there is no minimum penalty. This means that I could be sentenced to 6 months. And under Thai law, if the combined sentences issued by the court is less than 5 years, a defendant qualifies for a suspended sentence. If I qualify for a suspended sentence, that, so far, appears to be the best-case scenario for me. 
Has there been any statement from the government about your charge? If yes, how would you analyse it? 
Reuters have interviewed Weerachon Sukhontapatipak, the NCPO spokesperson. In the interview, Weerachon stated that criticism had not been outlawed and that “if it violates existing laws, it must be dealt with accordingly”. 
I would analyse this statement as 'camouflage repression'. The NCPO are stepping back from direct military repression and are now operating their repression through the police, the TCSD, and the use of repressive laws in the criminal code. This type of repression appears to be normal as the penal codes of sedition has existed even before the coup. Thus, the military can feel more comfortable in defending their repression of dissidents and critics, myself included. This narrative fits with the provisions of the new constitution whereby the military still maintains a considerable presence in the military-appointed Senate despite allowing for elected MPs. We are in a new terrain now, but it remains dangerous. 
The message is clear: if you're a normal Facebook or Twitter user, there is that chilling effect of always being under threat of prosecution. 
You have always been a fierce critic of the junta. Why have the NCPO chose this particular time to charge you? 
I was not too surprised. After my second detention, the military threatened me by relaying to me that they were about to file a sedition charge against me and try me in the military court. However, the NCPO decided at the last second to not go through with the prosecution. They used the soccer analogy in explaining their warning against me. The first detention was a 'yellow-card' warning. The second detention was unusual in that they described it as a 'pink' card. The charge now is the dreaded 'red card'. 
Do you think your charges are a message from the government to quell public criticism over Yingluck Shinawatra’s current trial? 
The timing of the charges are definitely pointed, as its before the verdict on Yingluck’s case. At this time, I am not even aware which of my posts contained the ‘seditious’ material. My guess is that it is about a post I wrote regarding the Yingluck trial. I wrote something to the effect of 'Yingluck has about 6 million followers and I wonder how many will turn up on the 25th august (her trial). I fail to see how this is a direct incitement. The accusation that I authored a post which would incite people to demonstrate on the streets is far-fetched. I'm not even a Yingluck Shinawatra supporter, so I don't know why I'm being lumped together with her case. 
How will you predict your life changing with this case? 
Well, the time I would have spent criticising Prayuth and the NCPO is now replaced with being bogged down in legal proceedings and talking to the media, even with you! Thus, the first thing is that a big chunk of my life has been taken away. Even if the case does not go to trial, I will spend the next few months preparing to defend myself. 
Second, and more personally, is that this case will increase tensions with my father. He's an ex diplomat and is very dismissive of any action that would put myself at risk. His point of view is why should anyone bother in pro-democracy activism. The risks do not justify the action, and the public should just lie low until the storm is weathered. This is a predominant view among a large swathe of educated Thai middle class. According to this view, politics is just a game where even elected politicians engage in corruption to be a major player. To be honest, I would not to inform him about the charges because he is elderly and I do not want to alarm him. But he will eventually find out about it as news would trickle down from among his former senior ranking officers. 
In addition, I feel sorry for Khaosod English as my critical Facebook posts do not involve their work. I didn't want them to feel any more stress that they currently face. Any newspaper that does not have a good relationship with The NCPO will feel pressure. Thus, I have tried to lie low and I have not written much, not even about my charges. It's unfortunate as other people are facing this charge and if I was not charged myself, I could write more directly about this problem. 
Also, now I'm even more unsure about my ability to go to the US to accept the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). This hinges on whether I become a defendant and become embroiled in court proceedings. If things speed up, I could be a defendant by early November. 
However, having said this, I am overwhelmed of the support I receive from various organisations. The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists is in contact with me. Two world leading press groups the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders have also been in touch with me and will release statement. A few European embassies and Canada have also contacted me to offer moral support. 
My final line is this: if you're in a position to take a stand against the crackdown on dissent, you should. No matter how much life has and will change, I will face my case head on and I will not run away. We cannot truly enjoy freedom, if we are not willing to defend it. 
What aspects of your background has influenced your current approach to journalism? Tell us more about the history behind Pravit Rojanaphruk.  
I would trace my current outlook back to my time when I was growing up in Manila. I grew up in a relatively sheltered and luxurious environment as the son of the Thai ambassador to the Philippines. Our house, which is the ambassador’s residence, was among the biggest of the Thai ambassadors in the world. The place is about the size of the Thai government house, had half a basketball court, and a swimming pool. I enrolled in a prestigious Spanish catholic school, who can boast of alumni such as the younger sister of ex-Philippines President Benigno Aquino. However, this experience was a turning point for me as my luxury contrasted greatly with the poverty and slums which existed all around me. At the time, the Philippines was under the iron fist of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, where the income disparity between the haves and have-nots was immense. I feel indebted to the taxpayer support for my fortunate life, so I felt like, my life, instead of leading it like many others, I wanted to give something back to the people. 
My sense of activism grew when I studied my undergraduate degree at the University of the Philippines. I studied at the most left-wing oriented college at the university, in social work and community development. Added to this is that the university has a history of struggle against dictatorship. This was a time of great social and political change as the successful People’s Power Revolution was in the process of overthrowing Marcos. I also had an experience protesting against the US base and seeing the brutal crackdown on tear gas and water cannons. It was my first experience of experiencing physical government crackdown. 
My spirit of fighting for freedom and justice was further stirred when I attended the University of Oxford, twice in fact, the first time with a Reuters Fellowship. It is a very exclusive fellowship and only four Thai journalists have been awarded the fellowship so far. I was the third recipient of the fellowship. This group of recipients are journalists at the top of their field. This exclusivity also made me realise the position I was in having benefited from a good education, and I wanted to use my skills and knowledge to help others.

There was one key life-defining experience when the  Office of Reuters Fellowship Administration in the University of Oxford showed me a statement from a referee who selected me for the Fellowship. The referee noted that I would achieve great success in the field of journalism in 20 years based on my current abilities. This gave me a great deal of confidence that I could really make a difference as a journalist in fighting for political and social change.
Another key influence was during my rookie years at The Nation, which coincided with the military crackdown on the protestors at the Bloody May incident. That was a truly horrifying incident which provided more fuel to my already burning fire for critical journalism. 
As a vocal and public figure, you must get a lot of rabid hate speeches against your person. Can you explain about your experience with this?
I do receive hate speeches on social media, mostly through Twitter. They can be quite extreme in language. There is one social media user with the name of ‘Somchai F_ck Pravit’ who has been disturbing me almost every day for almost 3 years. When I was charged recently, he sent me a Tweet stating “You will be 70+ (when you get released from prison), Good luck, don’t worry about the celebration, we have done it already.” I also do get threats of physical harm through social media. The typical threats I get are “We will take care of you”, “We will see you …. (at some place)”, “Watch your ass, Pravit. This is deep shit asshole.” However, I do strongly believe in free expression and thus, I refuse to block these social media users or their threatening messages. I still want to listen and understand my critics, no matter how violent the language employed. 
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