Freedom of the Press
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Despite the country’sreturn to civilian rule in early 2008, press freedom declined during the year as the newly elected government grappled with massive opposition protests and a series of adverse court rulings. The year’s developments illustrated the extent to which the Thai news media have become embroiled in the persistent political divide between the allies and enemies of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
The 2007 constitution, which replaced an interim charter imposed by the military government that had failed to explicitly protect freedom of expression, restores and even extends the 1997 constitution’s freedom of expression guarantees. Moreover, the legislature in August 2007 had replaced the draconian 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, which reserved the government’s right to shut down media outlets, with a new Printing Act that bears fewer restrictions and lighter penalties for violations. However, other new legislation imposed by the military government is considered a potential menace to press freedom. An amended Internal Security Act, passed just before the December 2007 elections that returned Thaksin’s allies to power, allows the Internal Security Operations Command to use sweeping emergency powers in the face of vaguely defined security threats. Press freedom watchdog groups feared that the declaration of a state of emergency by the beleaguered pro-Thaksin prime minister in September 2008 would bring strong restrictions on the media, but the military declined to enforce the move, and the political conflict itself remained the greater source of pressure. Meanwhile, several older laws that allow the government to restrict the media to preserve public order—and the particularly harsh lese majeste legislation, which assigns penalties of three to 15 years in prison for criticism of the king, the royal family, or Buddhism—remain in force. In 2008, three separate lese majeste charges were filed against British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent Jonathan Head for political reporting and public statements that allegedly insulted the monarchy.
Defamation legislation under the penal code is harsh, and Thaksin used it routinely to silence critical voices during his administration. The use of libel suits has declined since his ouster, but defamation charges were filed against journalists by the military government for insulting coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin in 2007, and then by the elected government, led by the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party (PPP), in 2008. One of the biggest defamation suits in 2008 was launched not by the government, however, but by a retailer, Tesco Lotus, which sued a columnist for roughly US$3 million for criticizing its aggressive expansion strategies and weak social responsibility. 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.” A new Broadcasting Act that took effect in March governs the licensing of radio and television in three categories—public, private, and community media. In June, however, proposed implementing legislation was criticized as “regressive” by AMARC, an international NGO serving the community radio movement. By year’s end, the required broadcast licensing body had yet to be set up.
The country’s print media had remained largely unaffected by military rule and continued to present a variety of viewpoints on controversial topics. The broadcasting sector and online media were obstructed much more significantly, with the military authorities taking stringent action against any coverage of Thaksin in particular. In 2008, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej repeatedly complained of media bias against his PPP-led coalition government and issued numerous threats to close various publishing houses and jail critical columnists. The first half of the year was marked by a back and forth between Samak’s government and the anti-Thaksin protest movement known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Both the PAD-affiliated Asia Satellite Television (ASTV) and the government-controlled national broadcaster, NBT, exhibited one-sided reporting on national events.
Just as the military government had sought to influence the country’s political trajectory through a tight grip on the broadcasting sector in 2007, the PPP government issued directives in August 2008 that called on broadcasters to “take the side” of the government in their coverage of the PAD protests. This followed the prime minister’s February announcement of a news-monitoring taskforce and the cancellation of a popular radio program a few days later. In June, the interior minister issued a directive to all cable operators to pull ASTV from their services or face possible prison terms. Also in June, the minister tried to ban ASTV altogether to prevent its live coverage of the antigovernment demonstrations, but he ultimately refrained from doing so.
Press freedom declined more dramatically during the latter part of the year. In late August, 2,000 PAD protesters forced NBT off the air by storming their offices and holding staff members hostage. They tried to force the broadcaster to air coverage of the PAD’s takeover of Government House, but were unsuccessful. As noted above, the prime minister’s declaration of a state of emergency in September raised concerns that more press restrictions were imminent, but the military refused to enforce the declaration, and it was lifted after less than two weeks. Attacks on the press peaked along with the PAD protests in November, as demonstrators laid siege to Thailand’s main airports. Media outlets were targeted by protesters from both sides of the political divide late in the month: ASTV offices in the capital were attacked with grenades, while progovernment demonstrators attacked the Chiang Mai offices of Vihok Radio, and beat and shot the father of the station operator. The progovernment Taxi Radio was then assaulted by the PAD, and two people were injured. Tit-for-tat attacks continued until the Constitutional Court ended the political crisis on December 2, dissolving the PPP and paving the way for the formation of a new government later that month.
Violence against journalists also occurred in Thailand’s volatile south, where the government has been battling an insurgency by members of the region’s ethnic Malay Muslim population. In August, reporter Chalee Boonsawat of Thai Rath, the largest Thai-language daily, was killed while covering an explosion in the south. Athiwat Chaiyanurat, a reporter with the Thai-language daily Matichon, was shot the same month, seemingly in response to his coverage of local corruption.
Radio and television remain under the control of the state or formerly state-affiliated private businesses, and many radio stations were closed after the 2006 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. A new public broadcaster, the Thai Public Broadcasting Corporation, was established in January 2008. Press freedom groups welcomed the development but reiterated concerns about iTV’s closure. The government’s failure to set up the regulating and licensing commission in 2008, as required by the new Broadcasting Act, meant that the country’s 2,000 to 3,000 community radio stations continued to operate outside the law.The internet is accessed by approximately 20.5 percent of the Thai population. Government censorship of the internet has occurred since 2003, largely to prevent the circulation of pornography and illegal products. However, since the 2006 coup internet censorship has increasingly been used against potentially disruptive political messages and sites that are considered a threat to national security, including those of Muslim separatist groups. The Computer Crime Act, imposed by the military government in 2007, assigns prison terms of up to five years for the publication of forged or false content that endangers individuals, the public, or national security, as well as for the use of proxy servers to access government-restricted material. The legislation was first invoked against a blogger in 2007, and watchdog groups have expressed fears that the law was having a chilling effect on free online discussion. Of some 400 websites closed down in September 2008, 344 were shuttered for “offending the monarchy.” In October, the communications minister announced ambitious plans to create an internet firewall that would block access to websites considered insulting to the king.