Thailand is changing. The passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on 13 October 2016 forced a reality unfamiliar to the country and its people for 70 years.
Amid the grief, uncertainty, and transition, one thing remains the same — the nation’s deep love and devotion for their monarch whose legacy is left in the hands of the people to enrich.
But this will not happen should they remain ignorant of key events in their society. And the primary sources of information — media and journalism — are under siege.
In the past four weeks, authorities have imposed a number of guidelines and regulations related to the handling of information on current events. These on top of a restrictive environment under a military junta and the long practice of self-censorship because of the lese majeste law.
At a time when the people are most hungry for news about the late King and Thailand’s future, constraints on the venues for discussion or limiting conversations aggravate fear and anxiety over the unknown.
Do’s and don’ts
Right after the official announcement of the King’s passing, at least two foreign news channels reporting live on the event were abruptly cut off the air. It remains to be confirmed whether this was of the cable service provider’s own doing or an order from authorities.
Within an hour, the government ordered all broadcast media to suspend normal programming for 30 days and only air content from the Television Pool of Thailand (TV Pool). The day after, the instructions were rescinded allowing each channel to broadcast “normally” but with discretion.
On 14 October 2016, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) ordered media outlets to obtain prior approval on information related to the King’s demise and to “refrain from interpretation, analysis, and criticism” beyond the releases of the government and the Bureau of the Royal Household. The order led to confusion and further control on what the media can say or do.
Moreover, the government’s attempt to control information shifted from prohibitions of certain topics toward a narrow field of allowable content particularly evident in the NBTC guidelines.
The impact of the strict guidelines was immediate. Several reports about the delay in royal succession and the role of a temporary regent were published quoting the Vice President of the National Legislative Assembly of Thailand (NLA). But news websites took down the reports within three hours of publication only to reappear online and in the newspapers the following day.
NBTC also issued guidelines for all licensed media with internet channels, in effect ordering all internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor content 24/7. Some ISPs issued instructions asking users to report “inappropriate” information they find on respective platforms as Facebook and YouTube.
The Ministry of Digital Economy (MDE), formerly known as the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, announced the recruitment of 100 staff for a “war room” Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) based in the state-owned telecommunications company, TOT. Their main role is to monitor online content. In the same report, MDE announced that the war room has already suspended more than 600 websites.
The government announced that they held meetings with social media giants Facebook, Google (for YouTube), and Line for the latter to monitor and block illegal content. The companies responded indicating a reluctance to implement additional measures and/or create different rules for users particularly for Thailand.
The NBTC also ordered broadcast media and cable service providers to check foreign programs for “inappropriate” content before airing.
According to a news report, TrueVision – a cable satellite television operator that carry foreign news channels – recruited freelancers to monitor news programs of BBC, CNN, etc. The role of the staff is to cut the broadcast when analyses about the royal succession appears in foreign news.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in a press release stated that “some big foreign media have been reporting erroneous or false information and accusations that are of a manipulative and provocative nature.” MFA added that these practices were “not only unethical but also unprofessional, insensitive to the feelings of the Thai people and offensive towards Thai cultural traditions.”
The MFA press release focused on the relatively trivial matter of crowd estimates by calling out the foreign media “news reports that thousands of Thais have gathered to mourn the loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Royal Palace” instead of the official estimates which are “in the millions.”
The message on regulating news from foreign media was clear: only factual reports are allowed, with emphasis on complementing the atmosphere maintained by the government.
Moving beyond grief
Despite the general somber and calm atmosphere after the death of the King, the government alone cannot manage the mass outpouring of grief and the heightened sensitivities in the country.
During the first few weeks of the mourning period, such situation has taken the form of episodes of violence as some sectors of the Thai society displayed aggression through open reprimand, hate speech, and violent attacks.
Information about the monarchy has been governed by the lese majeste law — one of the strictest in the world and is designed to protect the institution from defamation, insult, or threat. In the past, media have actively refrained from even a broad mention of an “offending” content for fear of drawing a lawsuit for themselves.
The long practice of self-censorship in the media has turned the public sphere into a rumor-mongering society, hungry for information. With no clear definition or critical judgment of what constitutes a lese majeste offense, the room to interpret is wide and the punishment is severe.
Subjecting the media to more regulations on top of existing regulations render them unable to perform their duties. It is natural for people to talk about national affairs, and in particular the royal succession. This period demands the media — by clear, unhindered reports — to tell what is going on, help maintain order, and warn against hostility.
In these critical times, which is fraught with anxiety, less regulation on the media would allow it to perform a better role as information channels and provide spaces for civic discussion.
Free-flowing information encourages participation in public affairs and openness assures greater accountability of institutions to serve the public good. It is in the interest of the government to work with the media to find ways to move forward.
A timeline: Media freedom and free expression in Thailand since the passing of HM the King