Thailand | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Thailand

Thailand

Freedom of the Press 2006

2006 Scores

Press Status

Partly Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

50

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

21

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

14

Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party's landslide reelection in February 2005 rightfully alarmed press freedom and democracy watchdog groups. The year brought the prime minister's escalating intolerance for criticism in the media to new heights with the use of emergency national security legislation and several lawsuits and business acquisitions to limit criticism in and increase state control of the Thai press.

The 1997 constitution includes strong protections for freedom of expression, yet several older laws still in force reserve the government's right to restrict the media to preserve national security or public order, and limit criticism of the royal family or Buddhism. In July 2005, Thaksin took full advantage of such provisions when, in response to mounting violence in the southern provinces, he issued the Executive Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations. The decree, passed without parliamentary approval (despite the party's overwhelming parliamentary majority), allows for the prohibition of media considered a threat to national security or to be "distorting the facts." Justified as an improvement upon martial law, the decree was renewed for three months in October. Access to information, also constitutionally guaranteed, has essentially been reversed under Thaksin, with the number of disclosures steadily declining as compared with the first four years after the Access to Information Law was passed in 1997. The 1941 Printing Act reserves the government's right to shut down media outlets, but this legislation has typically been reserved for blocking pornographic or separatist content. However, government concern about a surge of community radio stations prompted the abrupt cancellation of the popular "Muang Thai Rai Sapda" television program because the show "promoted misunderstanding among the public"; and in August, the Public Relations Department and police closed down a popular community radio station notoriously critical of the government.

The number of criminal and civil defamation suits filed by government officials or business affiliates against members of the press increased significantly in 2005. Several politically connected corporations filed legal charges to curb disparaging reporting on their activities and, in certain cases, suspend the careers of critical editors and journalists for many years. This tendency was largely encouraged by the landmark criminal defamation suit in July filed against media activist Supinya Klangnarong and three Thai Post senior editors (charged with suggesting a conflict of interest between Thaksin's public office and his family's private businesses) by the Shin Corporation, a Thaksin-founded conglomerate of which his family is a major shareholder. Although later pressured to drop them, Thaksin himself filed a series of charges against Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent journalist and fierce Thaksin critic, for alleging that he was disloyal to the Thai monarch, and against the daily Manager for reporting a Buddhist monk's criticism of the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, monetary damages sought in civil cases alone included some of the largest figures ever requested for libel anywhere in the world. The country's growing culture of legal intimidation and a general fear of economic repercussions have sparked a rise in self-censorship and, in certain cases, caused newspaper managers to take punitive action against critical reporters. The murders of two press members who had reported negatively on local police and officials mark an additional decline for press freedom in Thailand, where violence against journalists has typically been rare.

Radio and television remain primarily under the control of the state or state-affiliated private businesses; stations are required to renew licenses annually and to feature government-produced newscasts daily. Media ownership became even more problematic toward the end of the year with the prime minister's use of business cronies to purchase greater shares in or orchestrate financial takeovers of media organizations. Examples include the secretary-general of the Thai Rak Thai party, who increased his family's stakes in the Nation Group (an independent media company), and the controlling stakes that GMM Grammy PLC (a large media conglomerate dealing with both news and entertainment) maintains in Matichon (an independent Bangkok-based daily) as well as the publishing company of the Bangkok Post. The National Broadcast Commission, established in October 2005 to redistribute the country's frequencies from the state to the private sector as constitutionally mandated, was nullified just a month later for irregularities in its selection process. The government has censored the internet since 2003 and has successfully blocked more than 4,000 websites; since violence erupted in the south, it has ramped up efforts to block sites considered a threat to national security, including those of Muslim separatist groups.