Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- In July, a journalist was arrested under the provisions of the 2016 Referendum Act, which banned the expression of opinions “inconsistent with the truth.” The act effectively prohibited campaigning against a military-written draft constitution that was put to a referendum in August, and was ultimately approved.
- Authorities banned over 1,000 websites following the death in October of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and interrupted broadcasts by foreign, English-language news outlets about his passing.
- In December, the government approved an amendment to the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA) that expanded authorities’ power to monitor internet activity and censor online content.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that in 2014 ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and installed a junta, has systematically used censorship, intimidation, and legal action to suppress journalists and media outlets. Authorities aggressively enforce defamation and lèse majesté laws, and have summoned journalists for meetings at which they are pressured to stop producing coverage critical of the NCPO.
In 2016, the NCPO took efforts to curtail free speech during the lead-up to an August referendum on a draft constitution authored by a military-appointed committee. These included the approval of the Referendum Act, which banned the expression of opinions “inconsistent with the truth” and effectively prohibited campaigning against the draft constitution. Violations of the act carried penalties of up to 10 years in jail. In July, Thaweesak Kerdpoka of the online news site Prachatai was arrested alongside three other people under the Referendum Act’s provisions after authorities found campaign material urging a “no” vote in the referendum in a search of their vehicle. They were later released on bail, but the status of the case against Thaweesak appeared to be unresolved at year’s end. Prachatai’s offices were also searched in the wake of Thaweesak’s arrest.
Authorities also cracked down on coverage of the death of the Thai king in October. Following his death, authorities banned more than 1,000 websites that carried coverage of the monarchy that was deemed objectionable, and also censored broadcasts by foreign news outlets about the king’s passing.
In December, the government passed an amendment to the CCA that allowed authorities to request, without a court order, that internet service providers disclose information about web users and web traffic. It also allowed authorities to request the removal of online content deemed morally offensive or threatening to national security, also without court approval.
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 gave unchecked power to the NCPO. The repressive Article 44 of the interim constitution allows the NCPO chairman to issue orders with no oversight or accountability. In an environment tightly controlled by the NCPO, voters in August 2016 approved a new constitution, but it had not been ratified by year’s end.
Restrictive legislation put in place before the coup have continued to limit media freedom. Convictions under Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws can carry as long as 15 years in prison, and lèse-majesté defendants are almost always denied bail. Between May 2014, when the coup was launched, and May 2016, 68 people were charged with lèse majesté. Of those cases, 21 involved material on Facebook, including 5 that centered remarks sent through its Messenger service. The 2007 CCA 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. In December 2016, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved amendments to the CCA that allowed authorities to request, without a court order, that internet service providers provide information about web users and web traffic. It also allowed authorities to request the removal of online content deemed morally offensive or to threaten national security, also without court approval.
The 2016 Referendum Act banned the expression of opinions that were “inconsistent with the truth,” and effectively prohibited campaigning against the draft constitution. Violations carried penalties of up to 10 years in jail. In July, Thaweesak of the online news site Prachatai was arrested under its provisions, alongside three other people, after authorities found campaign material urging a “no” vote in the referendum and other political materials in a search of their vehicle. Thaweesak and the others were released on bail, but the status of their cases appeared unresolved at year’s end. Additionally, following Thaweesak’s arrest, Prachatai’s offices were searched by police officers, who were reportedly looking for evidence the website had published material that violated the Referendum Act. No material was seized during the search, for which police had produced a warrant.
The adjudication of media-related cases remains problematic due to the courts’ lack of independence. 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) is responsible for allocating broadcast licenses and regulating both broadcast and online media. It 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. In July 2016, the government invoked Article 44 of the interim constitution to grant legal immunity to the NBTC for regulatory actions it imposes on channels that broadcast material deemed harmful to national security.
Journalists and their professional organizations have been subject to increased monitoring by authorities since the coup, affecting their ability to operate freely. Self-censorship has 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.
The NCPO actively encourages civilian informants to report anticoup activity or opinions, and has suppressed civil society events at which freedom of expression and other human rights were to be discussed. In June 2016, a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) highlighting the human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar was abruptly halted, in what appeared to be an attempt by the Thai junta to block criticism of Myanmar’s visiting State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Separately, in May 2016, journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was barred from leaving the country to participate in a World Press Freedom Day event in Finland. Pravit said authorities had informed him that the travel ban came in response to his continued criticism of the NCPO.
Press institutions such as the Thai Journalists Association and the National Press Council have been criticized for supporting the military government, even as they have issued calls for the regime to revoke restrictions on the media.
Political Environment: 33 / 40
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. Meanwhile, coverage is also shaped by pressure from the NCPO. In August 2016, two journalists with Voice TV were suspended for 10 days each in connection with coverage critical of the NCPO; the suspensions were reportedly issued in order to avoid penalties from the NBTC.
Access to official sources is tightly controlled. Critical outlets continued to be censored during 2016. According to government sources, the regime shut down 1,370 websites in October after the death of the Thai king, more than the 1,237 that had been shut down over the previous five years. (Of those, 974 were censored in the first two years after the coup.) Notably, some reports about the death of the king by foreign, English-language broadcasters, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), were replaced with blank screens reading “Programming Will Return Shortly.” Authorities issued a statement claiming that unnamed foreign broadcasters had behaved irresponsibly by underreporting the number of people who took to the streets to mourn the king.
Journalists practice self-censorship to avoid reprisals from the government, with many notably reluctant to report on topics involving the monarchy. Many media outlets, including newspapers known previously for their spirited commentary and analysis of domestic politics, have been comparatively subdued since the coup.
With many media outlets harassed, attacked, or closed, Thais have access to fewer viewpoints than before the coup, 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. Online news sources and social networking sites contain more diverse content than traditional media, though censorship and self-censorship are still common.
The NCPO restricts who may enter the country on journalists’ visas, with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reporting in February 2016 that at least five media visas had been denied since the 2014 coup. The same month, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued guidelines for media visas that permitted authorities to reject applications from reporters whose work or behavior constituted a threat to “public order or to the security of the kingdom.”
Since the coup, the NCPO has used summonses, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, and harassment as means of silencing dissent. 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. Although the government claims that those who are merely summoned are not regarded as having engaged in wrongdoing, 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.
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 6 analogue terrestrial television channels and 24 commercial digital terrestrial channels, along with 661 cable, satellite, and online television services. There are also thousands of 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. Internet penetration reached approximately 48 percent in 2016, and social media platforms like Facebook and Line are popular.
The fast-changing media landscape and poor economic conditions in the country have shaken many outlets’ financial sustainability. One notable closing was that of the popular daily Baan Muang, which, citing financial difficulties, announced that it would end operations at the end of 2016.