Freedom of the Press
Press freedom in Thailand continued to deteriorate in 2015 following a 2014 military coup that ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and installed a junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), whose leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, became prime minister. Attempts to draft a new permanent constitution were delayed in 2015, meaning elections were not expected until 2017. The NCPO regime has aggressively enforced defamation and lèse-majesté laws, banned criticism of its rule, and harassed, attacked, and shut down media outlets. Journalists, critical academics, activists, and others continued to face intimidation, summonses from authorities, and arbitrary detention and arrests throughout the year.
- Since the 2014 coup, there has been a sharp increase in lèse-majesté cases, with at least 100 people charged under Article 112 of the penal code and the Computer Crimes Act. Sentences issued during 2015 ranged as high as 30 years in prison.
- The authorities proposed new measures that could further restrict media freedom, including a Cybersecurity Bill that would increase surveillance, prevent the publication of sensitive material, and facilitate data interception and website blocking. However, the government appeared to step back from plans to create a single gateway for all internet traffic following a public outcry.
Legal Environment: 27 / 30
The declaration of martial law and the suspension of the 2007 constitution in May 2014 effectively annulled any legal safeguards for freedom of expression. The interim constitution issued in July 2014 gives unchecked power to the NCPO and absolves junta members of any wrongdoing. Martial law enabled authorities to detain anyone for up to seven days without charge or evidence, and authorities often refused to provide information about detainees or provide them with access to counsel. In April 2015, martial law was replaced with the more repressive Article 44 of the interim constitution, which gives sweeping powers to General Prayuth as the NCPO chairman and allows him to issue orders with no oversight or accountability.
In January 2015, the government introduced the draft Cybersecurity Bill, which would increase surveillance, prevent the publication of sensitive material, and allow data interception and website blocking without judicial permission. The bill was still pending at year’s end.
Restrictive legislation that had been in place before the coup continued to limit media independence. Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws have had a particularly chilling effect on freedom of expression. Article 112 of the penal code assigns penalties of up to 15 years in prison for anyone who “defames, insults, or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent.” Prosecutors have been able to increase sentences beyond this threshold by charging multiple counts and invoking the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA), which 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. Article 112 complaints can be brought by one citizen against another, and authorities are required to investigate them. Lèse-majesté defendants are almost always denied bail. Many of the approximately 100 people charged with lèse-majesté since the coup have received heavy sentences. In March 2015, a businessman received a 25-year prison term for posting comments deemed insulting to the monarchy on Facebook. In August, a travel agent was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for six Facebook posts, the longest recorded sentence for lèse-majesté. A hotel worker received a 28-year sentence on the same day, also for posting allegedly critical Facebook comments. All three convictions came from military courts.
Criminal defamation laws are also used to silence dissent. In one high-profile case, Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague, Chutima Sidasathien, were acquitted in September of charges filed in December 2013 by the Royal Thai Navy, which objected to an article in their independent online paper, Phuketwan, that quoted from a Reuters series linking Thai naval forces to human trafficking. The Reuters investigation went on to win a Pulitzer Prize; neither Reuters nor its journalists were charged in Thailand. Despite the acquittals, Phuketwan closed at the end of the year because of financial difficulties brought on by the case.
The adjudication of cases remains problematic due to the courts’ lack of meaningful independence. The Phuketwan case dragged on for 19 months despite the weakness of the prosecution’s evidence, taking a considerable toll on the defendants and acting as a deterrent on both the local and the national press.
The military court system has been central to the NCPO’s crackdown on dissent. Thai military courts do not meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial. They regularly try civilians for lèse-majesté, threats to national security, and sedition, and generally impose harsher sentences than civilian courts. There is no right of appeal, and rulings are handed down without announcement or any form of public observation.
Thailand enacted a freedom of information law in 1997, but it includes exceptions for information that might put the monarchy in jeopardy, threaten national security, or impede law enforcement. Historically the legislation has been poorly understood and unevenly applied.
The introduction of commercial digital terrestrial television licenses in 2013 reshaped the media landscape and ended an oligopoly enjoyed by the country’s six analog channels. However, the digital transition process still favored major players with the resources and market share to run a successful broadcast station in a newly competitive sector.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), responsible for allocating broadcast licenses and regulating both broadcast and online media, is not independent in practice. After the coup it worked closely with the NCPO to enforce military orders and shut down or block media outlets as deemed necessary by the junta, and several of the commissioners are military or police officials. In 2012, the NBTC approved a draft regulation that would allow the issuing of one-year “trial” licenses to more than 7,000 community radio stations in anticipation of a more permanent licensing scheme. After the 2014 coup, those stations that met NCPO criteria were issued temporary licenses, but they had to sign a memorandum of understanding—agreeing to comply with NCPO and NBTC rules—while awaiting a more thorough examination, whose timeframe had yet to be determined.
Journalists and their professional organizations have been subject to increased monitoring by authorities since the coup, affecting their ability to operate freely. The NCPO actively encourages civilian informants to report anticoup activity or opinions. Press institutions such as the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the National Press Council, as well as the NBTC, have been widely criticized for supporting the military government. Nevertheless, on World Press Freedom Day in May 2015, the TJA, the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, the Press Council, and the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand issued a joint statement calling on the regime to revoke restrictions on the media and stop interfering in the work of the NBTC.
The NCPO has suppressed scores of civil society events touching on freedom of expression and other human rights, including the launch of reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok. In January 2015, military officers ordered the Friedrich Ebert Foundation not to hold a public presentation at a Bangkok hotel of a study on media freedom in Thailand, arguing that it was too sensitive. In June, the junta asked the FCCT to cancel an event organized to launch a report by the TLHR on lèse-majesté laws and the decline of human rights since the 2014 coup.
Political Environment: 33 / 40 (↓2)
Most mainstream media and many individual journalists remain highly polarized between the “yellow shirts,” meaning royalists opposed to the various governments associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and “red shirts,” who support Thaksin’s political movement. However, with many media outlets harassed, attacked, or closed, Thais have access to less media diversity and fewer viewpoints than in the past, and the available outlets are less able to provide information on sensitive topics such as corruption, the trafficking of Rohingya refugees in Thailand, and the monarchy.
Critical outlets continued to be censored and closed during 2015. In April, the NBTC shut down Peace TV and TV 24, two satellite stations affiliated with the red-shirt organization United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), reportedly for airing programs that threatened national security and criticized the military authorities. A number of closed media outlets have turned to online-only distribution. For example, Peace TV relaunched its programming online in May, offering 15 hours of broadcasts a day.
Although the internet and social-networking sites contain a greater diversity of content and debate than traditional media, online censorship and self-censorship are common. In May, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 200 websites had been shut down for threatening national security in the year since the coup, including its own Thailand page. Beyond website blocking, the NCPO has taken a number of steps to increase control over the internet. Working groups were set up in 2014 to monitor and analyze content, identify problematic sites, and combat online crimes, including dissemination of illegal information. The government also proposed creating a single, state-controlled internet gateway that would enable more efficient and comprehensive censorship of online content; the current nine internet gateways are run by state and private enterprises. After a public outcry about the plan, however, the government said in October 2015 that it would not proceed.
Self-censorship on topics involving the monarchy remained the norm throughout the year, and many media outlets, including newspapers known previously for their spirited commentary and analysis of domestic politics, have been comparatively subdued since the coup. Self-censorship has also reportedly increased since rumors circulated toward the end of 2014 that the military had new technology capable of detecting keywords linked to lèse-majesté online. In September 2015, Thai publishers of the New York Times refused to publish a front-page story discussing the health of the king, arguing that it was too sensitive. Shortly after this incident, the New York Times announced its decision to stop publishing in Thailand at the end of the year. In December, the local publishers censored three other New York Times stories they deemed too sensitive for publication.
Since the coup, the NCPO has used summonses, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, and harassment as means of silencing dissent. As of August 2015, the organization iLaw had documented 782 people who had been summoned or visited by the NCPO since May 2014. Those affected include journalists as well as prodemocracy politicians, academics, and activists; some were held incommunicado and without access to lawyers. In areas outside the capital, many were quietly “invited” for discussion without public announcements. As a condition for their release, most detainees had to sign agreements that they would not engage in politics or travel without permission. In many cases, authorities collected detainees’ personal information, including passwords for social media accounts, and a number of detainees report having been tortured in custody. In one high-profile case, journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was detained in September in connection with tweets and Facebook comments that questioned the legitimacy of the junta. He was held in solitary confinement and released after three days, having agreed to sign a document saying he would not work for any anticoup movement. The day after his release, he resigned after 23 years at the Nation, reportedly under pressure from the paper. Pravit had previously been summoned for “attitude adjustment” and held for seven days immediately after the coup.
Although the government claims that those who are merely summoned are not regarded as wrongdoers, several who have not responded to the NCPO’s invitation have been charged with criminal offenses. The NCPO refuses to provide information about people who are summoned or detained and often responds aggressively when questioned on the issue by journalists. General Prayuth continued his virulent denunciations of critical media in 2015. In March, when asked what he would do with journalists who do not follow the official line, he said, “We’ll probably just execute them”—a response his office claimed was a joke. In June, the regime announced a meeting to be held with 200 local and foreign journalists to teach them how to ask questions that would not annoy Prayuth.
Reports emerged in 2015 of foreign journalists having difficulties establishing, renewing, or changing their media accreditation. Applicants were reportedly questioned during interviews for work permits at the Foreign Ministry about their views on the monarchy, the coup, and the NCPO. Separately, British freelance journalist Andrew Drummond, who covered Thailand for 25 years and wrote about organized crime, was forced to leave the country in January 2015 after receiving threats against himself and his three children.
Economic Environment: 17 / 30
Large conglomerates and prominent families, some with political ties, own the majority of print outlets, while state entities—including the armed forces and police—have traditionally controlled the country’s free-to-air television stations and the roughly 700 officially registered radio stations. The state’s long-standing domination of broadcast media has been undermined in recent years by the availability of cable, satellite, and internet-based television, and the growth of community radio. Thailand has six analogue terrestrial television channels and 24 commercial digital terrestrial channels, along with 661 cable, satellite, and online television services. There are also 3,000-plus community radio stations and more than a dozen national newspapers. In addition, digital television spectrum space has been set aside for 12 national public-service channels and 12 regional community channels.
There are three major private mobile carriers—AIS, DTAC, and TrueMove. Mobile-telephone penetration exceeds 100 percent, meaning many Thais have more than one phone. Internet penetration reached over 39 percent in 2015, and social media platforms like Facebook and Line are extremely popular. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Thai service, which had closed in 2006, relaunched in July 2014 as a social-media-only operation.
The fast-changing media landscape and poor economic conditions in the country have shaken many outlets’ financial sustainability. More than 400 satellite, cable, and online television stations that were registered in 2014 were no longer in operation by late 2015.