WHEN journalists Tony Cheng and Florian Witulski entered Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport last week, they had no idea that they were about to be detained under serious charges.
The first details sound familiar: foreign nationals apprehended at one of SE Asia’s busy airports for one of many reoccurring reasons. Cases are often either drug related where an unlucky smuggler fails to get by security, or, suspects are caught at the airport fleeing crimes committed in their home countries.
However, in this case, the reporter’s charges are nothing more than carrying body armor plates and gas masks while on the way to cover the war in Mosul, Iraq.
“This is why it is so very important. If I go back to Iraq; I know I can borrow a vest; I know I can borrow a helmet. I don’t know where’s it been. I don’t know what level of protection it affords me, how old it is, or if it fits.” Tony Cheng said on an FCCT panel discussion Wednesday.
“But it’s yours. And you know that it’s there. And when you’re throwing yourself into the unknown–those little bits of certainty are very, very important.”
The two reporters were on their way to cover the continuing conflict in Iraq’s infamous Mosul. A region heavily controlled by ISIS and suspect to relentless threats.
Under the calamitous conditions presented when working in Mosul, it’s absolutely necessary for correspondents to have protective gear to ensure at least minimal safety to protect themselves from various types of hazards.
It’s a no brainer. Protective gear for conflict reporting is a necessity—although apparently the Thai government doesn’t see it that way.
Their charges are stipulated under Thailand’s 1987 Arms Control Act, which classifies protective gear as “military weapons” requiring civilians to own a license to possess this type of equipment.
The two journalists shot this video last year, showing a scene which bluntly displays the necessity to wear protective gear when covering conflict from the front lines. The footage shows a large explosion erupting too close for comfort as the reporters conduct an interview in Mosul.
Florian Witulski highlighted the ever present danger of covering the conflict– especially when moving from location to location in close quarters.
“The main fighting, which is still going in the moment in Mosul, is door to door.” He said,
“It goes through people’s backyards, it goes through little rooms. It goes really just like you would imagine in Bangkok, it goes through house to house.”
At an FCCT event on Wednesday, journalists came together to discuss the importance of body armor when working in conflict zones. The event reviewed the struggle to cover Mosul, and heavily underscored the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) when covering the developing situation.
On the panel, Tony Cheng highlighted how imperative wearing protective gear remains when covering war. He recalled his last trip to Mosul, describing that even wearing minimal protective gear is better than none at all. He said the equipment provides both essential physical support, as well as adding a degree of mental assurance when covering dangerous scenes.
He continued describing various dangers that journalists are susceptible to in Mosul, including machine-gun fire, direct assaults, incoming missiles, IEDS, and kidnappings.
“When you go to places like this—there are all sorts of traps awaiting you” Cheng said,
“You have to be very careful about all these things. I try to speak to friends and colleagues to get a good sense of what I’m going to need when I get there. But even then—you’re just taking a giant leap into the unknown.”
“So one of the things that you can be sure about, or you should be able to be sure about, is making sure that you have that level of protection” he said while pointing to his torso with both hands.
This isn’t the first time Thai authorities charged journalists for carrying this kind of protective equipment. In 2015, airport police stopped and arrested Hong Kong based photojournalist Anthony Kwan for carrying close to the same gear.
Similarly, the incident raised the very obvious question of whether or not Thai authorities should apply a case to case assessment when gear like this is discovered in the hands of reasonable journalists.
Luckily for Kwan, the charges were suddenly dropped the following January.
Journalists and other concerned groups have called for all charges to be dropped in this particular case as well.
Although both Cheng and Witulski have been released on bail, Cheng faces up to five years in prison if sentenced under the controversial law.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, issued a statement recently saying,
“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,”
In the statement, the organization recalls when two foreign journalists were killed during Thailand’s violent political clashes of 2010. The clashes were heavily criticized by rights groups for the military’s unwarranted and excessive lethal force applied to civilian protesters. The crackdown ultimately resulted in a total of 90 deaths on both sides.
Some say that the reporter’s deaths could have been avoided had they been wearing adequate protective gear, as they were both killed from bullet wounds.
Cheng went on to explain the imperative need for respirators if faced with chemical weapons. He reassured that if a reporter didn’t have them in the case of an emergency, there could be deadly results.
“There are lots of recorded instances of chemical weapons being used by The Islamic State. Very basic ones, nothing too sophisticated. And if you have a respirator—it will give you enough time to get out. But if you don’t have one” Cheng said ominously,
“You’re in big trouble.”