Freedom of the Press
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Although legal protections for freedom of expression were restored when a new constitution was approved in August 2007, Thailand’s military-led government continued to significantly restrict media freedom throughout the year. It passed one of the world’s harshest internet crime laws, imposed tight controls on the state-run broadcasting sector, and manipulated the media in efforts to influence the outcome of the August constitutional referendum and the long-awaited general elections on December 23. The continuation of martial law in 35 out of the country’s 76 provinces for most of the year also hampered the media, especially local radio broadcasters.
The new constitution, which replaced an interim charter that failed to explicitly protect freedom of expression, restores and even extends the 1997 constitution’s freedom of expression guarantees. Moreover, the national legislative assembly replaced the country’s draconian 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, which reserved the government’s right to shut down media outlets, with a new Printing Act in late August. The new law bears fewer restrictions as well as lighter penalties for violations. However, the Computer Crime Act was passed in May and took effect in July, threatening harsh punitive measures—including prison terms of up to five years—for the publication of forged or false content that endangers individuals, the public, or national security and for the use of proxy servers to access government-restricted material. The legislation was first invoked to bring charges against a blogger and a webmaster in late August; the charges were dropped in October without explanation, but watchdog groups fear the new law will have a chilling effect on online media, the country’s strongest outlet for free discussion.
An amended Internal Security Act, passed by the outgoing legislature just before the December elections, is also considered a potential menace to press freedom, as it allows the Internal Security Operations Command to use sweeping emergency powers in the face of vaguely defined security threats. Meanwhile, several older laws that reserve the government’s right to restrict the media to preserve public order and prevent criticism of the king, royal family, or Buddhism remain in force. In October, the parliament rejected proposals that would have expanded the country’s already restrictive lese-majeste laws by barring criticism of the monarch’s children and members of the Privy Council. Access to information is guaranteed under the new constitution “unless the disclosure of such information shall affect the security of State, public safety, interests of other persons which shall be protected, or personal data of other persons as provided by law.”
Defamation legislation under the penal code is harsh, and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra used it routinely to silence critical voices. This use of libel suits has declined since Thaksin’s ouster in a 2006 military coup, but defamation charges have been filed against journalists for insulting coup leader and subsequent deputy prime minister Sonthi Boonyaratglin. In March, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, a former Thaksin critic, was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting a government official on the air in 2005. In a separate case in December, he was sentenced to three years in prison for libeling Thaksin in 2006. In April, a court in the capital city of Bangkok sentenced two talk-show hosts to two years in prison for accusing deputy Bangkok governor Samart Ratchapolasit of taking bribes.
The country’s print media have remained largely unaffected by military rule and continued to present a variety of viewpoints on controversial topics in 2007. The broadcasting sector and online media have been obstructed much more significantly. On January 10, the ruling Council on National Security (CNS) invoked Military Order No. 10, which urged media cooperation in promoting “peace and national unity,” for the first time since it was issued after the coup in September 2006. The CNS convened roughly 50 television and radio executives and asked them to keep their media outlets from being used as platforms for Thaksin and his supporters, warning that any programs failing to comply would be removed. Cable News Network (CNN) broadcasts of Thaksin were blocked the same week, and three community radio stations were closed down temporarily in May for airing interviews with Thaksin.
The CNS used its tight grip on the broadcasting sector to try to influence both the August constitutional referendum and the elections in December. While television programs featured some debate on the referendum, the government threatened sanctions for any “organized campaigns” to reject the charter. Radio commentators in the provinces were reportedly pressured to refrain from speaking out against the new constitution. As part of a host of campaign restrictions issued by the election commission in October, all broadcast media outlets were prevented from hosting candidates from one party without hosting candidates from all parties. Moreover, in another attempt to prevent Thaksin’s allies from gaining ground in the elections, the government in March tried to prevent the launch of a pro-Thaksin satellite news station called People’s Television (PTV) by denying it the internet access it needed. The station managed to launch anyway, but the authorities blocked it just hours later. PTV programs continued to be blocked in subsequent months, though it was reportedly broadcasting at year’s end. Although some 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, press freedom watchdog groups such as the Southeast Asian Press Alliance have expressed concerns about heightened self-censorship since the September 2006 coup, citing a shift in news coverage among some outlets and websites.
Radio and television remain under the control of the state or formerly state-affiliated private businesses, and many radio stations have been closed since the coup. Government control of the media increased in March 2007 when the Public Relations Department took over Thailand’s only independent broadcast television station, iTV. Officials claimed that the station, previously run by one of Thaksin’s former companies, had illegally changed its operating concession with the former prime minister’s office and thus owed crippling fines. After facing protests against its outright closure, the government opted to relaunch the station with state funds under the name Thailand Independent Television.
The internet is accessed by approximately 13 percent of the Thai population. Government censorship of the internet has occurred since 2003, largely to prevent the circulation of pornography and illegal products. After the coup, priority shifted to prohibiting potentially disruptive political messages, and sites considered a threat to national security, including those of Muslim separatist groups, continued to be blocked in light of persistent violence in the Muslim south. The CNS continued to censor the internet and block websites it deemed a threat to the military regime, including two in May that covered Thaksin in a favorable light and criticized the junta. YouTube was banned in April after it carried videos deemed insulting to the king and thus a violation of the country’s lese-majeste laws; the ban was lifted in August when Google, the owner of YouTube, agreed to block any offensive videos.