Risks in reporting the referendum

Media and journalists are navigating through the uncertainty of working under Thailand’s current political situation.

The media play the following roles in society: to inform the people of what is going on, how events and issues affect their lives; to serve as platforms for voices to be heard, providing access to all sides; and to help ensure that the government is acting in public interest.

But what happens when journalists who merely do their job risk arrest or detention, among other threats and attacks? The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) discussed with some journalists in Thailand how the existing environment, particularly the effect of ambiguous rules and laws, affect the practice of their profession.

The Prachatai case

Taweesak Kerdpoka and his news outlet, Prachatai, had to raise 140,000 Thai Baht (about 4,000 US dollar) for his release from detention.

 

The 25-year-old journalist was arrested on 10 July 2016, along with three New Democracy Movement (NDM) activists, for allegedly violating Article 61 of the Referendum Act. Taweesak is assigned to cover the ongoing campaigns on the draft Constitution. He was covering a visit to pro-democracy activists in Ratchaburi province who were facing charges and was set to ride with the group back to Bangkok. The police searched and found anti-charter booklets in the activist’s pick-up truck, and promptly arrested them.

On 12 July 2016, police officers and soldiers searched the Prachatai office looking for “Vote No” materials allegedly printed by the online media organization.

Taweesak has a court hearing on 29 August 2016, three weeks after the referendum, which will determine whether charges will be dropped. He expects that the result of the referendum won’t affect his case. Despite his optimism that the charges will not hold, this case involving Taweesak and Prachatai demonstrates a further closing of space for press freedom in the country.

Practicing self-censorship

The Election Commission of Thailand estimates that at least 80 percent of around 50 million people will cast their vote on 7 August 2016. With a substantial proportion of first-time voters and a majority still undecided if they will accept the current draft of the constitution or not, information on the content and discussion of its impact are not only relevant but necessary.

Recent pronouncements and actions by authorities make it difficult to have an open dialogue. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has released a number of conditions on the monitoring, conduct, and reporting of the draft constitution and referendum. With an emphasis on ensuring “stability”, the NCPO orders ensure that any opposition is practically on “mute.”
The referendum law’s Article 61 prohibits “aggressive,” “rude,” “inciting,” and “threatening” dissemination and discussion of information. Moreover, its interpretation is subjective; and experience shows, implementation is uneven. Only the authorities know what constitutes legal or illegal actions.

“When there is such confusion among journalists (of what is acceptable or not), the result is ultimately self-censorship,” said Nanchanok Wongsamuth, an investigative reporter for Spectrum, a Bangkok Post weekly supplement on regional current affairs and politics.

“Some journalists might feel that it is too risky to publish any content that might be deemed illegal according to Section 61 of the Referendum Act, and thus refrain from writing about these ‘risky issues’ altogether; namely, issues related to growing opposition of the draft charter or criticisms of the referendum or charter,” she explained.

Sujane Kanparit reports issues on politics and history in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) context for a monthly lifestyle magazine.

“I have barriers at work. Self-censorship is practiced in my organisation. The editors are very careful when I submit a pitch for some sensitive issues about politics. I can’t cover many issues because the editors fear of facing difficulties with the authority or the conservative readers,” he said.

Sujane shared that when he submits his work with sensitive issues, the editor cuts sentences deemed “problematic.” He said this practice makes the article weak and the context inadequate.
“But I have to convince myself to accept it. Perhaps it might be better than going unpublished,” he added.

Facing more pressure

In the run-up to the August 7 referendum, the NCPO released Order No. 41 granting the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and its personnel immunity from accountability for shutting down any media violating the junta’s restrictions on criticism or violating national security.

Coming weeks prior to the referendum, Order No. 41 enforces NCPO Order No. 97 and its amendment, Order No. 103 — which states that media outlets are prohibited to publish/broadcast the following: 1) false information or elements which appear to defame monarchy; 2) news deemed to harm national security; 3) dishonest criticism of the NCPO; 4) confidential materials of state agencies; 5) information causing incitement and division; 6) calls for assembly to oppose state authorities; and 7) threats against individuals.

NBTC’s new powers also gives it the power to shut down any media outlet which produce “insincere criticism” to the referendum.

Suchanee, who preferred not to be identified by her last name for safety reasons, said these regulations are hard to accept. She said that these recently imposed regulations on the industry leave them in a predicament, with broadcast journalists bound and gagged.

“We work in a quandary as there is only a very thin line between what we can and can’t discuss regarding the referendum coverage. Since there is also a lack of precise judgement and explanation by the government, what is allowed to to be said today could turn into ‘no-go-zone’ (tomorrow),” she said.

The climate of fear is prevalent. “As a result of the restrictions, the level of self-censorship goes very far nowadays, but as a Thai journalist, we automatically know what ought to or not ought to be reported. But sometimes it could happen that what you could report before seems to be too sensitive nowadays,” she observed.

Suchanee added: “We feel threatened to inform the public about what the government calls a sensitive issue (e.g. the Vote No phenomenon) as we know that the government might use their absolute power to suspend our broadcast. The media industry is big and competitive in Thailand. We cannot afford the monetary loss if the station is closed.”

“We struggle to remain truthful, ethical as a press and at the same time, avoid what could affect our interest,” she said.

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