BANGKOK - Across Thailand’s media landscape, new cybercrime and sedition laws created by the former junta-led government have effectively stifled criticism of that period. With a new civilian government in place, but led by a former military coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, questions remain as to whether an ongoing clampdown on the media will continue.
Thailand ranks 136th in a recent World Press Freedom index issued by Reporters Without Borders and is classified as being in a “difficult situation.” Free speech and news reporting have been increasingly targeted since a 2014 coup.
Outspoken journalists from news organizations such as the daily newspaper, Khaosod, have been summoned and interrogated by the army for what has been described as an “attitude adjustment,” a disturbing move that some worry is the new norm.
Journalist Teeranai Charuvastra, who works for Khaosod English, says, “There are multiple agencies and task forces dealing with and patrolling and policing what the media is saying, what people are saying online and this could have consequences on what you say or what you write.”
The paper's senior staff reporter, Pravit Rojanaphruk, has been summoned several times by the army and charged with sedition and violation of the country's Computer Crime Act for Facebook postings critical of the government.
In May 2014, Pravit was summoned and detained incommunicado for a week soon after military coup-makers seized power. In September 2015, he was summoned to a military base, where he was blindfolded, driven for over an hour to a house with closed windows, and held incommunicado in a four-by-four-meter room by plainclothes military officials. Pravit said he thought he could "disappear" permanently during that time. In 2017, he received an International Press Freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Separately, rights groups have repeatedly called on Thai authorities to drop Section 116 of the Criminal Code — seen as the sedition law, which had been broadly applied to prosecute any person who has published criticism of the junta or government. It also targets any act that will “raise unrest and disaffection amongst the people in a manner likely to cause disturbance in the country.”
A government spokesman, Kobsak Phutrakun, had agreed to an interview with VOA to discuss press freedom, but then abruptly said it would have to be rescheduled. Kobsak later declined to grant the interview.
Charuvastra adds that although intimidation of the media are not new, such incidents are intensifying in nature.
“Thai authorities have a very long history of very long-standing culture of patrolling and making the people say what can be said within boundaries, so it is not exactly a new normal (but) I would say it is an extension of the normalcy, even before the coup.”
Government critics face possible physical violence as well as the threat of prosecution and time in jail.
Charuvastra recently covered the case of Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, a pro-democracy activist who was attacked by four baton-wielding men on June 28. Government critics say the incident fits a recent pattern of physical attacks on prominent critics who oppose the military government.
Sunai Phasuk is a senior Human Rights Watch Asia researcher in Thailand. He says reporters risk being taken into military camps to be interrogated and pressured to change their attitude.
“The term used by the junta - attitude adjustment - is very real. They don’t want any critical opinions to be expressed by the media and they don’t want the media that does their job properly. They simply want cheerleaders,” said Phasuk.
Critics say the increased media clampdown is a worrying trend, given the growing number of charges against journalists and activists.
Some see the move as copying the harsh treatment used by communist regimes or military leaders in neighboring countries that have stepped up restrictions on government critics.
“Under military rule of the NCPO, Thailand seems to have adopted the Chinese model of media control of the manipulation of news reporting turning media from being a watchdog of government performance of misconduct and wrongdoings they have been downgraded to be lap dogs of the Junta,” says HRW’s Phasuk. He was referring to the former military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order.
Thailand has witnessed a deep political divide since Thaksin Shinawatra’s rise to prime minister from 2001 until 2006, when he was ousted in a military coup.
Thaksin fled the kingdom in 2008, just before he was convicted of corruption and now lives in self-imposed exile abroad. The core of his political supporters remains in the Puea Thai Party, which won the most parliamentary seats in recent elections but just lost the popular vote to the army-backed Palang Pracharath Party.
Many observers see a split in opinion about coverage of news and policies that shape the country.
Networks like Voice TV, which is owned by Thaksin's family, were shut down for two days during the recent election for criticizing the military but resumed broadcasting after a court ruled the suspension was invalid.
Voice TV political commentator Nattakorn Devakula was suspended for 10 days by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, or NBTC in 2016 - for violating two court orders issued by the junta regarding broadcasting and telecommunications.
Many rights critics view the NBTC as a state agency which was granted special powers to censor the media.
“Thailand’s press is divided into two camps - one camp that is somewhat in favor of the junta believes that you need these checks and balances on elected politicians. But then you have other members of the press that don’t believe that. They believe that these checks and balances are ... themselves, obstacles to a democracy,” Nattakorn Devakula said.
Voice TV and six other public broadcasters are returning licenses to operate digital TV channels because of declining profitability amid crackdowns by the military government, which is seen to have narrowed the space for public comment on political matters.
The media, however, remain active online.
With increasing restrictions and potential financial burdens being imposed on media groups critical of the military, there has been increasing self-censorship, leading many to turn to more anonymous media outlets.
“I think that there’s a factor that people in the media don’t pay enough attention to – that the public doesn’t need us anymore to tell them what is going on because we self-censor ourselves and we have censored ourselves so much that we can barely tell the story,” Khaosod’s Charuvastra said.
“That’s why you have these people on social media that are not controlled by traditional means, who are now filling in the gaps. They are the ones to tell the story, they are the ones to fill the gaps to give us the complete picture, the bigger picture.
"We can barely say anything anymore; however, social media has the anonymous people, like civilian journalists; that kind of stuff. They have a better capacity to tell a story," he said.