Freedom of the Press
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Thailand experienced a decline in press freedom for a third consecutive year in 2009 as a result of the country’s ongoing political contest between the allies and enemies of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. In addition to restrictions imposed during a state of emergency in April 2009 and direct attacks on media workers covering opposition protests, a significant increase in the use of long-standing lese majeste laws exacerbated the difficulties faced by the press during the year.
The 2007 constitution, which replaced an interim charter imposed by the military government that had failed to explicitly protect freedom of expression, restored and even extended the 1997 constitution’s freedom of expression guarantees. Also in 2007, the legislature 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 legislation imposed by the military government remained a threat to press freedom. An amended Internal Security Act (ISA), passed just before the December 2007 elections that temporarily returned Thaksin’s allies to power, allows the Internal Security Operations Command to use sweeping emergency powers in the event of vaguely defined security threats. In 2009, the anti-Thaksin government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva invoked the ISA to curtail protests led by the red-shirted United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Meanwhile, several older laws that permit the government to restrict the media to preserve public order—and the particularly harsh lese majeste legislation, which assigns penalties of up to 15 years in prison for criticism of the king, the royal family, or Buddhism—remain in force.
With political tensions and succession concerns mounting as the king’s health declined in 2009, the trend of increased use of lese majeste laws reached new levels. Complaints filed against British Broadcasting Corporation editor Jonathan Head in 2008 were still pending at the end of 2009, and editions of the Economist were prevented from entering the country in January, July, and October because of the magazine’s coverage of the lese majeste crackdown. In a particularly harsh case in August 2009, a UDD protester and former journalist was sentenced to 18 years in prison on three counts of lese majeste for comments made during a protest in 2008. In another instance, a private citizen affiliated with the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), or “yellow shirts,” filed lese majeste charges against the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in connection with a 2007 speech delivered there by a UDD leader. A number of writers have gone into exile to escape lese majeste charges.
The penal code’s punishments for defamation are harsh, and Thaksin used them routinely to silence critical voices during his time in power. The use of libel suits has declined since his ouster, but defamation charges continued to be filed against journalists by subsequent governments. In late 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit launched a defamation suit against red-shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan, who had accused him of ordering security forces to kill protesters in April and delaying a petition to pardon Thaksin. In June, Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban were themselves acquitted of libel in a case filed by former Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party executive Prommin Lertsuridej, who complained about their accusations that the TRT had hired small parties to contest the 2006 elections. In September, media magnate and PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul was sentenced to two years in prison after losing one libel suit; additional prison time was imposed after he lost an appeal in another libel case.
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.” The 2008 Broadcasting Act governs the licensing of radio and television in three categories—public, private, and community media. Despite assurances from the government, the required broadcast licensing body had yet to be set up by the end of 2009.
The broadcast media have displayed clear biases in the ongoing political crisis, with outlets providing skewed coverage of national events as they fall under the control of one or the other side. Some maintain that the rise of new media is curbing this phenomenon, as mobile-telephone text messaging and video recordings posted on the internet provide alternate sources of information.
In April 2009, the prime minister declared a state of emergency in response to massive UDD protests in Bangkok, as some UDD leaders called for a campaign of violence to depose the government. The emergency declaration included a decree allowing officials to censor news that was considered a threat to national security. An outlet called Station D, which was linked to the red-shirt movement and aired Thaksin’s declarations of support for a “people’s revolution,” was blocked the next day. Three local radio stations and 71 websites that were considered to be affiliated with Thaksin were also closed, but they resumed operations later in April when the state of emergency was lifted.
The April tumult featured a series of direct attacks on members of the press. Reporters were harassed by UDD protesters for “underreporting” on the demonstrations, and an explosive device was thrown near the offices of ASTV, a station that had opposed Thaksin-aligned governments. On April 17, Sondhi, a regular ASTV commentator, survived an assassination attempt; an investigation into the attack was incomplete at year’s end. Persistent violence in Thailand’s volatile south, where the government has been battling an insurgency by members of the region’s ethnic Malay Muslim population, also affects the press. Past cases of physical attacks on journalists generally remain unsolved.
Print media remain in private hands, though large conglomerates and prominent families, some with political ties, own the majority of outlets. 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, though hundreds of officially registered stations continue to broadcast throughout the country. Government control of the broadcast media increased in 2007 when the Public Relations Department took over Thailand’s only independent 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 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 2009, as required by the 2008 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 26 percent of the Thai population. Government censorship of the internet has been in place 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 (CCA), imposed by the military government in 2007, assigns prison terms of up to five years for the online 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 restricted material. The legislation was first invoked against a blogger in 2007 and has increasingly been used to apply lese majeste laws to the internet. A major clampdown on online media occurred in 2009, with the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) claiming to have closed 2,000 websites and 8,300 pages for lese majeste violations. In August, the MICT created a police taskforce dedicated to monitoring websites and identifying those posting content that violates lese majeste laws. In April, a blogger was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and the editor of the online newspaper Prachatai was charged under the CCA for postings made to a discussion board that were deemed critical of the queen. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the editor faced up to 50 years in prison; the case had not been resolved by year’s end.