Freedom of the Press
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Despite the extent of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s intolerance for critical media, the September 2006 coup that installed a military-led government brought an even more dramatic decline for press freedom in Thailand. Rather than fostering a more open, diverse media as a key pillar of the stronger democracy it claims to be creating, the Council for Democratic Reform, later dubbed the Council for National Security (CNS), has largely treated the press as a potential threat to the new regime and restricted it as such.
The September 19 coup abrogated the 1997 constitution and its strong protections for freedom of expression. Despite heavy lobbying by a coalition of Thai media advocates and assurances by coup leader General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, the interim constitution promulgated on October 1 does not explicitly protect freedom of expression and failed to rescind restrictions on the press imposed in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Several older laws that reserve the government’s right to restrict the media to preserve national security or public order and prevent criticism of the king, royal family or Buddhism remain in force, including the 1941 Printing Act, which reserves the government’s right to shut down media outlets. Access to information legislation, introduced in the 1997 constitution (although essentially reversed under Thaksin with a steady decline in disclosures), has also been erased.
Defamation legislation under the penal code is harsh and proved a favorite tool of the former Thaksin regime for silencing critical voices. Prior to being removed from office in September, Thaksin continued to file a series of criminal and civil defamation suits against critical journalists and editors, particularly for reporting on his family’s controversial THB 73 billion (US$1.858 billion) sale of its shares in Shin Corporation, a Thaksin family conglomerate, to Temasek Holdings, the Singaporean government investment fund, in January 2006. As a political standoff emerged between Thaksin supporters and those calling for his resignation in mid-March, the prime minister increasingly filed libel and sedition charges against journalists and media outlets that covered the massive anti-Thaksin protests occurring around the country. By June 2006, Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent journalist and fierce Thaksin critic who first came under fire from the prime minister in 2005, was facing 50 criminal lawsuits, largely for activities associated with his role as a leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, a coalition of anti-Thaksin protesters. The status of many of these cases remained uncertain at year’s end in light of Thaksin’s retreat into exile. However, March 2006 brought the landmark acquittal of media activist Supinya Klangnarong and four journalists from the daily Thai Post, charged by the Shin Corporation in 2005 with suggesting a conflict of interest between Thaksin’s public office and his family’s private businesses. The court’s ruling, which held that public companies, like public figures, should be open to criticism in the public interest, was widely lauded by local and international press freedom advocates. The pre-coup period also saw a number of closings in response to critical or investigative reporting, including that of the anti-graft website Corruption Watch after it covered the Shin Corporation–Temasek transaction in January.
Restrictions on media coverage during the coup itself were largely limited to disruptions of CNN and British Broadcasting Corporation broadcasts featuring background on Thaksin and a local broadcast airing a statement from Thaksin himself. Foreign and local journalists enjoyed relatively unfettered movement. However, a number of significant restrictions were imposed in the coup’s immediate aftermath. On September 20, the military’s Administrative Reform Council empowered the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to “control, block, and destroy” information detrimental to the new administration and issued Military Order No. 10, urging media cooperation in promoting “peace and national unity.”
The CNS took a proactive and direct approach to securing media compliance, calling a meeting with senior media representatives to convey a host of coverage directives on September 21. The broadcasting sector, with all radio and television frequencies owned by the government, incurred the greatest restrictions. Troops were positioned outside all broadcast stations, and station executives were ordered not to air materials that might challenge the new regime. All expressions of public opinion and discussions of the coup itself were essentially banned, with all media asked to stop broadcasting related text messages; radio stations ordered to cancel phone-in news programs; and more than 300 radio stations closed down in just a few days in three provinces known for being Thaksin strongholds. Thai editors expressed significant concern about the military’s interference in the broadcasting sector in light of the fact that the National Telecommunications Commission and the National Broadcasting Commission, previously intended to serve as independent regulators of the airwaves, were made defunct by the new regime.
No specific guidelines were issued to print media, and the mainstream press and foreign media were generally allowed to operate as usual, although “negative” reporting was widely discouraged. Coverage directives were extended to webmasters responsible for online media, and a website designed to allow Thais to share opinions on the coup was shut down on orders from the Ministry of Information immediately after it was established, on the grounds that it was “in violation of rules imposed by the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy.” Another website, Midnight University, was shut down in early October for “insulting the monarchy” after its organizers launched a protest against the interim constitution. In November, the military government announced plans to push through a bill in question under Thaksin that would effectively allow the interim government to close down legitimate websites and take legal action against those who post content deemed to be a threat to national security.
Several press freedom watchdog groups expressed concerns about heightened self-censorship, particularly in television programming, and the Southeast Asia Press Alliance noted that websites typically supportive of Thaksin shifted to strictly covering the latest news. However, print and broadcast media continued to report news critical of the interim government and the CNS as well as Thaksin’s statements and activities later in the year.
Radio and television remain under the control of the state—now the military—or formerly state-affiliated private businesses. iTV, Thailand’s only independent nonstate-owned broadcast television station, is run by the Shin Corporation, owned by Thaksin until January 2006, when he sold his shares to Temasek in what has been considered the largest single deal in the Thai stock market. Stations are required to renew licenses annually and to feature government-produced newscasts daily. The National Broadcasting Commission, established in October 2005 to redistribute the country’s frequencies from the state to the private sector, remained in limbo at year’s end. The internet is accessed by approximately 12.5 percent of the Thai population. Government censorship of the internet has occurred since 2003, largely to prevent circulation of pornography or illegal products; after the coup, internet censorship shifted to prohibiting potentially disruptive political messages, while sites considered a threat to national security, including those of Muslim separatist groups, continue to be blocked in light of persistent violence in the south.