Thai journalists under increasing pressure


Since the military coup last May, Thailand’s media freedom ratings have plummeted, and the junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha got the world’s attention on 25 March 2015 when he casually announced he would “probably just execute” journalists who did “not report the truth.”

The statement, which the International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists Thailand (NUJT) have called “deplorable”, was a clear illustration of the military’s crackdown on dissenters and free speech.

More recently, Prayuth told reporters: “I will shut them [media outlets] down when they don’t say good things….I have not yet shut down any publications, but please write in a good way. If it is not good, then I will need to do that.”

Lifting martial law on 1 April, almost one year after the military overthrew former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on 22 May 22 2014, did little to ease tensions: critics claim that the new interim constitution will give the military unchecked powers and allow banning any publication deemed “harmful to national peace and stability.”

Locally, the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the National Press Council of Thailand, the Thai Broadcasting Journalists Association (TBJA) and the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand have expressed deep concern in a joint statement and invited the junta to “set the clear rules, guidelines and procedures for the security authorities in conducting their duties.”

But journalists in Thailand were walking on a tightrope even before the coup, caught between big business and the country’s complex political landscape made up of populists, royalists and the military.

The pre-coup elected government was already closing opposition media, and a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that the official justification for the restrictions is that a partisan media can incite violence.

Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative of the CPJ, told Equal Times that, “the reversal of press freedom in Thailand coincided with the election of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra [the brother of Yingluck], who pressured and threatened the media in unprecedented ways during his six year tenure [from 2001-2006]…The trend has continued under successive administrations aligned with and against Thaksin.”

The Computer Crimes Act of 2007, for example, allowed prison sentences to be carried out for releasing information that endangered national security or insulted the monarchy.

The CPJ has also documented the imprisonment of journalists and the killing of at least four reporters between 2010 and 2012.

Yet, Sumeth Somkanae, president of the NUJT, regrets that national media organisations are not consulted more when it comes to international press freedom reports.

“Internationally, there is a lot of focus on lèse majesté. Websites do get closed if they insult royals, but they are also routinely closed for sexually explicit or otherwise illegal information,” he adds, suggesting that pressure from officials and businesses against journalists should receive more attention internationally.

Crispin adds that the deposed Thaksin and the successive governments were “especially abusive” using state enterprise advertising as a tool to keep the media complicit.

Whereas journalist associations protect established media professionals, threatened mostly by local officials, it appears that semi-professional or partisan media as well as bloggers are the main targets of the punitive measures of central government.


Muddling through legal processes

Chutima Sidasathian, a reporter for an English-language local newspaper Phuketwan, learned about media limitations the hard way.

Because of her investigative work into the link between the Thai Navy and the trafficking of the Rohingya boat people, she was detained. Although she was later released on bail, Chutima is now facing trial.

“I feel sorry for myself, but I have to stand up for my country,” she says. “I tell other colleagues, ‘Hey, you are a journalist. You should be brave!’”

The TJA lists many other similar examples used to intimidate journalists, such as a bomb thrown into an editorial office or an arson attack on a journalist’s car – acts for which nobody has yet been convicted.

“Unfortunately the legal process in Thailand is rather long,” says Pramed Lekpetch, the TJA’s vice-president, “but at least the TJA can provide legal support and visibility to journalists affected.”

Rangsee Limpichotikul, a reporter from the Daily News who extensively covered the case of an ethnic Karen activist who went missing since last year, says he is concerned about his safety.

“I have to change cars each time I go to meet my sources to make sure I am not followed,” he explains to Equal Times.

For Niramol Prasansuk, manager of the TBJA, telephone threats, journalists being followed or bullying media owners are the main types of pressure facing journalists who cover corruption, human rights and environmental issues.

“Investigative journalism is costly and risky,” she asserts, but her association supports investigative reporters by giving them the powerful weapon of publicity – awards, statements of support, and networking opportunities.

There is also widespread concern about the increasing self-censorship and political bias among local journalists, some of whom do not work as journalists full-time and may use questionable sources.

A report by Southeast Asian Press Alliance explains that many journalists are engulfed in the political polarisation between the government and opposition.

The NUJT president believes that slow unionisation, obstructed by media owners, is also a key obstacle to press freedom.

For now, associations can only offer their benefits to established full-time journalists and are still working on a framework that could offer assistance to freelancers and less-established journalists.


Daiva Repeckaite’s reporting trip to Thailand was sponsored by Minority Realities in the News, an EU-funded programme.