A media outlet has finally pushed back against authorities — and won. But it may not be able to enjoy its victory for too long.
On 27 February 2019, the Administrative Court repealed the order by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the country’s regulator of broadcasting and telecom industries, to suspend the operation of Voice TV for 15 days beginning 13 February 2019. According to the court, NBTC’s order had been unlawful.
Nearly a month later, however, NBTC filed an appeal with the Supreme Administrative Court. For the Administrative Court proceedings, there are only two layers of the court: central and supreme. The verdict by the Supreme Administrative Court will become final.
The February 27 decision had clearly been a victory for Voice TV, whose operations had been suspended twice, seven days and 15 days respectively, by the NBTC after the 22 May 2014 military coup. It was also suspended for 26 days a few days before the military seizure of power.
Voice TV is arguably one of the junta’s fiercest critics. Various programs and program hosts of the terrestrial digital station had been previously forced off air on many occasions as well following the 2014 coup in Thailand by the junta, which is more formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
In its latest case, NBTC had argued that six episodes of two programs, Tonight Thailand and Wake Up News, broadcast on Voice TV between 16 December 2018 and 4 February 2019, violated Section 37 of the Radio and Television Operation Act of 2008, and Notification No. 97/2557 of the NCPO.
The entire Voice TV channel, owned by the son and daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was off the air for two consecutive days before the Administrative Court granted an injunction to the suspension and allowed the station to resume broadcast on 15 February until it issued its verdict.
Section 37 prohibits broadcasting of content that “affects State security, public order or people’s good morals …” while the Notification says any media shall not present any information that “causes confusion, provoke, instigate conflict or causes division in the Kingdom.”
Section 64 of the Radio and Television Operation Act, however, stipulates that NBTC may decide to suspend or revoke a broadcasting license only when a licensee violates Section 37 with the case incurring “serious damage.”
In its decision, the Administrative Court said that NBTC failed to show that the programs in question of Voice TV had caused any serious damage to public interest.
It had been the first time that Voice TV fought back against NBTC following yet another suspension order. Pinpaka Ngamsom, editor of Voice Online, Voice TV’s online news publication, said that Voice TV avoided to take on the NBTC in the past because it wanted to work with the regulator without any tension. But that no longer seems to be the case.
NBTC, though, is not the only worry of Voice TV. On 5 April 2019, Voice TV program host Sirote Klampaiboon was served a police warrant for defamation charges filed against him by Election Commission of Thailand (ECT). Civil-rights activist Nuttaa Mahattana was also included in the warrant for being a guest in the program at issue, aired on Voice TV on the general election day of 24 March 2019.
Sirote and Nuttaa were both guests of commentators on that day’s program, in which Voice TV, like many other television channels, covered the elections throughout the day. The police warrant asked both Sirote and Nuttaa to report to the police on 11 April 2019 in responding to the ECT charges.
Sirote is a known critic of the current military junta and other pro-military establishments.
Defamation through media carries a maximum jail term of two years and a fine of up to THB 200,000 baht (about USD 6,350).
In the meantime, observers do not believe that any final victory by Voice TV would draw more courage from its colleagues in other channels to become more critical of the junta. After all, Thai broadcasters, television and radio alike, are much more conservative compared to print or online news media.
Media associations, however, have spoken up against actions of authorities that they deem unfair or repressive.
After NBTC’s order to suspend the operation of Voice TV last February, the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) issued a joint statement with its associated organizations, expressing their disagreement with what they saw as an act of restricting media freedom.
The statement dated 13 February 2019 said that the NBTC should have suspended only the programs it saw as violating the law, or prosecuted the people responsible for such violation. It said that the agency should not have suspended the operation of the entire television station as this affected everybody in the company.
At the same time, though, the statement noted that as the nation was heading to a general election, the media should exercise thoroughness in their reporting, be impartial, and avoid any rhetoric that will cause hatred among people that could lead to conflict and violence as this had happened in the past.
In May 2018, TJA and the Thai Broadcasting Journalists Association had also issued a joint statement objecting to NBTC’s order to suspend the operation of Peace TV, a smaller via-satellite broadcaster, for 30 days that month. NBTC cited more or less the same reasons it would use later with Voice TV in suspending Peace TV, run by supporters of former premier Thaksin.