19 January 2012

Journalist may have been killed for exposing land disputes

A Thai journalist and political activist who often exposed land disputes was shot dead in Phuket, Thailand, report the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Wisut Tangwitthayaporn, publisher of the city newspaper "Inside Phuket", was driving to work when he was shot four times by a gunman on a motorbike, reports SEAPA. His wife, who was in the car with Wisut, was unharmed, SEAPA adds.

District police said their initial investigation would take into account the newspaper's exposé on corruption involving Phuket's granting of land titles to a group of influential businessmen and politicians. For instance, Wisut has fought against land encroachment on Freedom Beach, a remote stretch that lies within the boundary of a forest reserve, and has been reporting on the issue for the past two years, reports IPI.

According to local media, Wisut was a local leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, also known as the "Red Shirts", in the predominantly Yellow-Shirt province. The group, whose members are drawn largely from Thailand's rural areas, was formed in 2006 to protest the military coup that deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

He was set to lead a delegation of pro-Red-Shirt Pheu Thai party officials from Bangkok to inspect Phuket's Freedom Beach the day after he was killed, says SEAPA.

The Thai Journalists' Association (TJA) and its provincial branch are investigating the case.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 20 environmentalists and human rights defenders have been killed in Thailand since 2001, and few of those responsible have been held to account.

Last year, prominent environmental activist Thongnak Sawekchinda was killed just days after reporting that he had been threatened with death if he continued to protest against pollution generated by the coal industry in Samut Sakhon. Only after his murder did the provincial governor order police to provide protection to Thongnak's family and other members of his network.

Human Rights Watch says that investigations into these types of cases have historically suffered from inconsistent and sometimes shoddy investigatory procedures by the police, the failure to provide adequate protection for witnesses, and the inability to tackle political influence connected to the crimes.

Related stories on IFEX.org
Journalist shot dead by unidentified gunman
Human Rights Watch calls for investigation into environmentalist's murder

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