The military coup on 22 May 2014 quelled street protests, which sometimes turned violent, that had unsettled Bangkok for months. But the military junta, officially known as National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), that toppled the elected government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the protest’s target, has since ruled the nation with an iron fist, suppressing any voice of opposition and restricting free speech and media freedom.
Two days before the coup, General Prayut Chan-ocha, then army commander-in-chief, announced the imposition of the martial law across the country, effective from 3.00 a.m. of 20 May 2014. The declaration came after seven months of street protests against the Yingluck government by a movement called People’s Democratic Reform Committee led by Suthep Thaugsuban, ex-secretary general of the opposition Democrat Party.
General Prayut himself led the coup and is the leader of the NCPO. On 24 August, just before his mandatory retirement as the army chief, he further strengthened his power by officially becoming Thailand’s prime minister under a royal command, giving him an absolute power to rule the country. Leaders of the two previous coups in 1991 and 2006 both appointed a civilian outsider, or a person not involved in the coup, to be the premier.
Right after the national announcement seizing power from the Yingluck government, the junta suspended normal programing of all terrestrial, satellite and subscription (cable) televisions, and radio stations across the country. In the evening of the next day, 23 May, some major television channels – Channels 3, 5, 7 and 11, for instance – broadcast their normal programs for some hours, but they were suspended later in the evening.
On 22 May, the NCPO also enforced a curfew from 10.00 p.m. to 5.00 a.m. beginning on the next day.
By early June 2014, most terrestrial and satellite televisions went back on air, including CNN, BBC and Bloomberg TV, after being suspended for about two weeks. But those known to belong to or be affiliated with political parties and groups remained blocked.
In the evening of 13 June, General Prayut lifted the curfew across the country, including Bangkok, after having first relaxed it in major tourist towns.
Severe media restrictions
On the day of the coup, the NCPO issued two edicts, Announcements No. 14/2557 and No. 18/2557, which constitute law under the regime, to restrict media freedom. In essence, the orders told news media how they should do their job – what not to report and what should be reported.
Announcement No. 14/2557 “absolutely” bars any print medium, radio or television program, editor, program host or news medium from interviewing or seeking comments from bureaucrats or academics who are no longer in their active positions, or from those who used to work with court, the judiciary system or independent agencies “in a manner that may create more conflict, distortion or lead to confusion in the society, or that may lead to violence”. Any person who violates provisions in this announcement will be prosecuted under the law, and their publication or program will be suspended immediately.
In Announcement No. 18/2557, it says all media, both owned by state and private companies, including electronic media and social media, shall refrain from presenting the following information:
Statement that is false, or that could defame or create hatred to the monarchy, the heir-apparent, or any member of the royal family;
Information that is detrimental to national security, including those that are defamatory to other people;
Criticizing the work of the National Council for Peace and Order, its officials or related persons;
Audio or visual information or video that is confidential information of state agencies;
Information that could lead to confusion, could provoke conflict, or could cause social divide in the Kingdom;
Persuasion for any grouping that leads to any resistance to officials or persons related to the National Council for Peace and Order;
Threat to harm any person that could lead to panic or fear among the public
Announcement No. 18/2557 also says that all media have the duty to present their information as ordered by the National Council for Peace and Order.
In summary, the two announcements bar Thai media from reporting anything or interviewing anyone that is critical of the junta and demand them to report what the junta says.
Later on 18 July, General Prayut, as the NCPO head, issued another Announcement No. 97/2557 to repeal the two earlier documents. But actually, this new edict combines Announcements No. 14/2557 and No. 18/2557 into one single document. The new announcement kept the threat to any print or broadcasting medium that does not comply with its requirements will have its publication or program suspended immediately.
However, after a statement by the Thai Journalists Association expressing particular concerns on the possible suspension of publishing or broadcasting for non-compliance, the NCPO revised certain provisions in Announcement No. 97/2557 after a few days.
In Announcement No. 103/2557 issued on 21 July to revise No. 97/2557, the NCPO elaborates that criticism that the junta will not tolerate is criticism that is carried out “in bad faith in order to destroy the credibility of the National Council for Peace and Order with false information”. It also does away with provisions on the suspension of publishing or broadcasting. Instead, it now says for any non-compliance, the authorities may send the matter for ethical investigation by the professional organization the violator belongs to.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, the regulator of broadcasting and telecom industries, has invoked Announcement No. 97/2557 to suspend broadcasting for a short period of time of some small satellite televisions, accusing them of airing program contents that provoke conflict and social divide. For example, the red shirt affiliated Peace TV and 24TV were suspended for seven days in April 2015 for violating the order. The license of Peace TV was permanently revoked later in the same month.
Up until current days, Announcement No. 97/2557 and its revision No. 103/2557 remain the key media policy statement of the junta.
Apart from the announcements issued by the junta NCPO on its media policy, which constitute law under the regime, General Prayut, as the junta leader and prime minister, has also in many occasions made his personal comments on the work of media, which made the headlines in both local and international media.
His harshest comments came on 25 March 2015 when he said, allegedly in jest that he would “probably just execute” journalists who did “not report the truth”.
General Prayut was particularly critical of the Thai-language Matichon daily newspaper, accusing the paper of siding with ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies. “Don’t think I don’t know that your writing is pro the previous administration,” he was quoted by Reuters as telling a Matichon reporter shortly before boarding a plane to Brunei. “The previous Interior Ministry bought many advertising spaces from you.”
In February 2015, he made a public comment that he had the power to shut down news outlets.
General Prayut has always told reporters that they should report in such a way to bolster national reconciliation, which implied that news reports should toe the line of the junta’s policies.
Arrests and summonses
The junta NCPO started to arrest people without placing any charge and summon others to report to them right from the day it seized power. Its first Order No. 1/2557 dated 22 May 2014 called 18 people, mainly politicians associated with Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, to report to the junta at an army barracks in Bangkok on the same day of the issuance of the order.
More and more people were arrested and summoned since then under Army “invitations” to report. According to a compilation by iLaw, a non-governmental organization that monitoring the arrests and summonses by the NCPO, at least 139 people, 84 of them were people associated with Pheu Thai Party or the pro-Thaksin red-shirt movement, were arrested in the first ten days after the coup. In the early days of the coup, NCPO summonses were announced on national television.
The summonses included at least six journalists: five reporters and the editor of a monthly political magazine. Two of these reporters were summoned for asking ‘aggressive questions’ to Gen Prayut during a press conference.
The number of arrests and summonses continued after June 2014, although with lesser frequency that during the first month. However, by the end of December, almost 500 people were summoned. They were detained in military barracks for a maximum seven days and then released. Some of them were then charged and prosecuted in court martial.
As Thai mainstream media have refrained from any criticism of the junta since the coup, journalists were not the key target of the junta’s arrests or summonses.
Climate of fear and self-censorship
With the martial law and Announcement No. 97/2557 in place, Thai mainstream broadcasting media, which are owned by the state and have not been critical of any government in the past, altogether avoided any politically sensitive issue under the junta. Neither would newspapers, which are privately-owned and are generally more liberal, dare to be as critical of the junta as they had been with elected governments for fear of having their publications suspended.
Low-budget satellite televisions channels, which had played an instrumental role in instigating suspicion and hatred against the opposite side before the coup, have also toned down their reports.
The junta NCPO issued its first direct warning against a publication on 26 July 2014. Manager Weekly, a Thai language magazine. The junta said an edition of Thai-language Manager Weekly published statements that were “false information in bad faith in order to discredit the National Council for Peace and Order”. It said at this stage, it would simply give a warning to the author, editor and publisher of the magazine, and ask the professional organization to which they are members to investigate into their professional ethics and report the result to the NCPO. The junta, however, did not suspend Manager Weekly from publishing.
Manager Weekly responded to the warning by publishing a black cover in its next edition and then on its own suspended publication for a month.
That seemed to be the first and only written warning against a Thai publication by the junta.
However, on 11 November, a group of soldiers visited Thai PBS, the country’s public service broadcaster, and asked the station’s executives to stop the airing of a program titled “People’s Voice Must Be Listened to Before the Reform”. The soldiers claimed “their commander” did not like the way the program host posted her questions to her audience and the manner she described the coup. Thai PBS responded by immediately removing the program host from the show.
Thai PBS policy board released a 14 November statement acknowledging the soldiers’ visit, and said that while they supported the performance of the program host, the station needed to remove her to keep on air the program, which is a production collaboration with many other organizations.
Media associations speak up
After the coup and Announcements No. 14/2557 and No. 18/2557, the four main professional bodies of the country’s mainstream media jointly issued a statement on 24 May in requesting the NCPO to review, without any delay, its rigid media policy. They said the junta could have asked the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the regulator of broadcasting and telecom industries, to enforce laws governing media operations, rather than using its power to restrict media freedom.
The four organizations – Thai Journalists Association (TJA), National Press Council of Thailand, Thai Broadcast Journalists Association and News Broadcasting Council of Thailand – also asked the NCPO to issue, without any delay, a new constitution that will include provisions to safeguard free speech and media freedom not less than the provisions in the 2007 constitution that was abolished by the junta through the coup.
In the same statement, they urged Thai media to exercise their good discretion in their reporting and not to become “the tool” of any party. The said the media shall carry out their work responsibly and strictly adhere to their professional ethics.
However, this first joint statement did not seem to have any effect on the thinking of the junta.
However, after General Prayut issued Announcement No. 97/2557 with the threat of suspension of publication or broadcasting, TJA, the oldest and most established among the four media bodies, issued a statement expressing its concerns particularly on the barring of any criticism against the NCPO and its officials and the suspension threat. The statement said the NCPO did not make it clear whether there will be any warning before ordering a suspension.
Two days later, the NCPO issued Announcement No. 103/2557 to revise and soften the provisions in No. 97/2557.
Television goes digital
The country’s 24 new digital television stations, had just won their licenses by auction from the NBTC in December 2013, and started broadcasting their full programs in the second half of 2014. These TV channels are not really new in the media industry as all of them are previously either operate major print or broadcasting media, or were broadcasting content providers. Each digital TV license is valid for 15 years.
They are the first group of broadcasters who actually directly own the licenses of the terrestrial digital stations they are running. With the previous analog TV channels, program operators ran on long-term concessions from state agencies (including the Army), which own the stations.
However, digital TV channels they have so far failed to make any real impact on news or entertainment programs, probably cause of conditions under the junta. Their news reports still mainly toe the line of the government in power with little or no criticism of government’s programs or policies. Occasionally, they would cover a corruption scandal or an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Their main newscasts in mid-day or in the evening are mostly news bulletins with little effort to analyze or provide a more comprehensive context of an issue to viewers. And like their mainstream channel counterparts, there is no practice of investigative journalism. The few exceptions to this pattern can be witnessed in the new channels run by companies that also own daily newspapers, which had a record of being more critical and probing. These digital channels include those operated by Thai-language Thai Rath daily and English-language The Nation.
These new channels produce low-budgeted entertainment shows or rerun programs from channels of their affiliates. It is expected that not all of the current 24 licensees will be able to sustain operations until the next round of auctions after their 15-year licenses expire.
On 1 April 2015, the junta lifted the martial law after more than 10 months in place. But the move has raised anxieties as the NCPO replaced it Order No. 3/2558, implementing Section 44 of the interim Constitution, which gives the junta and its appointed “peace-keeping officers” even more sweeping powers, including barring any news report or suspending any publication for threatening to national security or public order. It still remains to be seen how the junta will make use of this new power.
On the other hand, the junta is expected to install a new constitution by the second half of 2015 and to set a date for a new general election by the first half of 2016 in returning Thailand to an elected government.
Beyond its projected term of office, there are several bills that are being drafted by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly which could affect free speech and media freedom. The most potent among these is the cyber security bill, which aims to tighten the state’s control on cyber space. This bill is part of the junta’s efforts to highlight digital economy as its agenda by proposing the creation of a new digital ministry for economic and social affairs.
Also in the pipeline, on a possibly positive endeavor, the junta plans to enact a personal information protection bill, which will be the first of such legislation in the country.