BANGKOK - Since seizing power in May, Thailand's military government has kept a firm grip on local news media as part of efforts to clamp down on political dissent. Critics say the steps to control the media are getting more extensive and repressive as authorities continue a process aimed at eliminating political divisions and changing the political system.
The Thai military moved swiftly after the coup to summon editors and news industry executives to meetings, setting tough ground rules for news and reporting.
Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor in chief of the English language Bangkok Post, and a media veteran, who attended the meetings with the military, says the message is one of no-nonsense with close monitoring TV and radio news broadcasts.
"Under previous governments the way they put on pressure [on the media] was different. But here it's clear," he said. "They use announcements. [But] they are willing to listen to a certain extent and make changes. The fact I think for television, for radio for satellite they are under the gun more than print media that's for sure. But it's a lot clearer - I'm not saying that's a good thing - the agenda is clearer."
Some easing, but restrictions remain
In mid-July, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) tried to outlaw any criticism of military leaders and punish publications and Websites that published offending content. Media associations succeeded in resisting the measures, and the military backed down.
But restrictions still remain, such as bans preventing local television talk shows from interviewing academics and former government officials and analysts. High-profile Thai political dissidents and critics of the military regime who have fled abroad are mainly only quoted by foreign media.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the bans on news reports highlight a clear message to the local media.
"There's a deepening repression of critical media bringing out points of view that the military junta disagree with. What we're seeing is increased banning of reports, blocking of websites issues a warning to media both print and electronic media not to step across a line that only the military junta really knows where that line is," said Robertson.
Thai media have become accustomed to "shadow boxing" with Thailand's powerful military.
Since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932 Thailand has faced 12 coups and long periods of military governments. In the past, military leaders shut down all newspapers. After a 1991 coup and during a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in May 1992 many newspapers defied efforts at official censorship.
In contrast, after the 2006 coup against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself faced charges of media meddling and suppression, military appointed Prime minister Surayud Chulanont promised a free press.
Thai commentators say today's restrictions are more straightforward and grounded in the ruling junta’s formal announcements. They also say the NCPO's backtracking over bans has led news organizations to self-censor to prevent the military from taking firmer control.
Supinya Klangnarong, a media rights activist and National Broadcasting Commission (NBTC) member, who in 2006 won a case brought by former Prime Minister Thaksin in a $10 million civil and criminal law suit, says the media are fearful over the future.
"A climate of fear is spreading at the national level and also the organizational level because of the coup and the martial law and all the criminalization of acts, especially up to the official, even at the NBTC - public figures - especially the officials are more sensitive - they could not tolerate criticism," she said.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders ranks Thailand, once one of the freest societies in South East Asia, at 130 out of 180 countries on an index of media freedom in 2014.
The military’s harder line is already directly felt by some journalists.
Chutima Sidasathan, a reporter on a Phuket-based web news service, who with an Australian editor, [Alan Morison], faces criminal defamation charges brought by the Royal Thai Navy after republishing parts of a Reuters report of July 2013 claiming Navy personnel were tied to human trafficking of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar.
Chutima says since the coup she has faced increasing harassment by navy personnel in Phuket.
"In this time when the army took [power] in Thailand it makes my life more difficult when working. I've been intimidated from the Navy officer. So very disturbing about this issue. And then I keep telling them - so we are journalists - we can't keep silent," she said.
The Bangkok Post's Pichai, says the junta is willing to listen to media concerns to ensure the government has a favorable image to the world. But he adds the military will also have no qualms about taking action if it is dissatisfied with the media's message.