[Thailand] Nation troops to polls as media remain hobbled by repressive laws

In the days leading to Thailand’s first general election after five years of junta’s rule, Thai media have been under pressure from the public to help ensure a free and fair election while having to contend with by newly enforced laws and regulations.

Fearful of breaching the new laws enforced by the military regime, the Thai media have become less intrepid in their reporting, while the electorate is left with inadequate information that they need to make an informed choice.

Meanwhile the polarization of Thai society is heightened anew as the polls approach, with this election being touted by many observers as a contest between democratic and undemocratic forces, or those against the military junta versus those preferring the concurrent junta leader and premier, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha to become the prime minister of a new elected government.

Not only that will the elections on March 24 be the first in almost eight years since 3 July 2011, it is also being held under a new Constitution and newly enforced election laws, put in place by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly, which consists of only one chamber with no opposition.

At a recent forum organized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, executive committee member of Media Inside Out, raised the issue of whether the news media would be able to help make the elections fair by providing equal chances for political parties contesting or the election, as the current legal framework is more conducive to the pro-junta bloc.

“The race is unequal,” Dr. Ubonrat said at the forum. “How can the media help to create a free and fair environment out of this unequal election framework?”

Nuttaa Mahattana, a  civil rights activist, said Thai media probably did not realize that they were operating under an authoritarian military regime, and that they should have acted differently compared to operating under an elected civilian government. She said Thai media should have been tougher in their questioning of the junta leaders.

“They have been cursed, they have been looked down on, either verbally or non-verbally, but they still smiled,” Nutaa said, an apparent allusion to some media members’ unquestioning obeisance to the authoritative rule and repressive regulations hounding Thailand today.

She said she could not understand the fact that the media have allowed the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the regulator of broadcasting and telecoms industries, to shut down news media, and that the media have not done enough to question how the NBTC has exercised its power.

“They seem to lack the spirit of a fighter,” she said.

Nuttaa was probably referring to a recent case whereby the NBTC ordered the broadcasting suspension of privately owned Voice TV for 15 days for airing programs critical of the junta government. (See details of this case in later part of this article.)

Some members of the public have called on the media to take the pro-democracy, pro-human rights side as the pro-army parties have undue advantage in the current political game.

Tanawat Wongchai, a student union leader at Chulalongkorn University, said he believes the media could be partial, hinting at adhering to and promoting democratic principles while ensuring that their reporting is “well-rounded and truthful.”

Nutchapakorn Nammueng, communications officer of iLaw, a local non-profit organization, also said the news media did not have to be politically impartial, but that no matter their ideologies, they needed to provide factual reporting.

Existing economic stagnation also accounts partly for less comprehensive reports of news media.

Pinpaka Ngamsom, editor of Voice Online, the news website of Voice TV, said due to spending cut, news media have to deal with having fewer reporters on the field.

 

Political polarization 

Thai society became polarized after the military coup in September 2006 that toppled the government of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The media themselves have been divided into the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps. Despite living in self-exile overseas, he still exerts considerable influence on Thai politics.

Although the color-coded political divide in Thailand – with the “red shirts” or supporters of Thaksin pitted against the “yellow shirts”, or those opposed to the billionaire erstwhile leader and his successors – does not define the key rhetorical state of this election, the polarization remains more or less around the deposed ex-premier.

Pheu Thai Party, a major political party associated with Thaksin and a front runner in the March 24 elections, is calling the electorate to vote against a succession of the junta’s power by the pro-Prayut party.

Pheu Thai rally in Bangkok last 15 February 2019.

On the other hand, Palang Pracharat Party, which was set up by former cabinet ministers of Prayut’s government and has proposed Prayut as its premiership candidate for the next government, has been campaigning on the notion that it will ensure continuity of the current policies and development plans of the current military regime.

Prayut led the junta, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to seize power from the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of Thaksin, in the May 2014 coup. Yingluck is also living in exile abroad.

Prayut, who has been careful not to violate any election law and is avoiding campaigning directly for the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party, has earlier alleged that some newspapers have been supporting the pro-Pheu Thai camp.

 

New election laws and regulations

Since its appointment in July 2014, the National Legislative Assembly, the lawmakers appointed by the NCPO, has approved 472 pieces of legislation as of early March 2019, according to data published on the NLA website.

These laws include a new Election Commission (EC) Act and Election of Members of House of Representatives (MP) Act. The NCPO also enacted a new Constitution in 2017, which includes provisions that tip the scales in favor of its allies and Prayut himself.

The two new election laws also set new regulations that are seen as vague and ambiguous by both by candidates and the media.

Orapin Yingyongpathana, editor-in-chief of online news website The Momentum, said: “There are many regulations of the EC that we have to be careful of.”

“When we want to talk about election campaign, we need to see what the media can or cannot do. We have seen from the past that political parties had been dissolved because of some little issues. So we have to be careful that our reports do not lead to some unintentional impacts.”

Ngamsom said newcomers such as her own media outlet did not know what they could do or could not do under the current election laws. The EC has never made things clear to them, she added.

Chonthicha Jangrew, coordinator of Democracy Restoration Group, a local non-profit organization, said despite the upcoming elections, the current political situation is anything but normal. Even civil rights activists like her are fearful of being persecuted by the state.

But Nammueng of iLaw said he saw that not all media establishments in Thailand are intimidated by the junta-enacted laws and regulations. Voice Online and Workpoint News, another news website which belongs to the company that runs a digital television channel of the same name.

 

Media prohibitions by law

New EC regulations bar media practitioners or owners to “use their ability or profession to benefit the campaign of any candidate or political party.”

It also prohibits any campaign that uses “violent, aggressive, rude or instigating” language. Observers note that these terms are open to interpretation, and EC officials could exercise their discretion in enforcing the law.

The MP Election Act prevents any candidate or political party to campaign on radio or television, except when they are using air time that has been allocated to them by the Election Commission.

The Act also bars any opinion poll that is conducted with being “not in good faith, leading or affecting the decision making of voting or not voting for any candidate”. It also prohibits publication of any opinion poll seven days prior to the election day. Violation of these provisions could be subject to a maximum jail term of three months, or a maximum fine of THB 6,000 (USD 190), or both.

These new election laws and regulations are being introduced at this general election where the intensity of competition is unprecedented. There are 80 political parties fielding over 10,000 candidates in the constituency MP elections on March 24, the largest number even seen in Thailand. This is compared to only 34 parties with 2,422 candidates in the last election in July 2011, according to data from EC.

 

A rare breath of fresh air

Yet not all’s lost with the Thai media, or so it seems, amid a repressive environment.

On 27 February 2019, the Administrative Court ruled that the order by the NBTC to suspend the operations of Voice TV, arguably the country’s most critical broadcaster, for 15 days beginning on 13 February 2019 was unlawful and thus ruled to repeal the order.

It was clearly a victory for Voice TV whose operation had been suspended twice, seven days and 15 days respectively, by the NBTC after the May 2014 coup. It was also suspended for 26 days a few days before the military seizure of power in 2014z.

Various programs and program hosts of the terrestrial digital station had also been previously called off air on many occasions following the latest coup in Thailand.

In its latest case, the NBTC 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 Shinawatra, became blank for two consecutive days before the Administrative Court granted an injunction to the suspension and allowed the station’s broadcasting to be back on air on February 15 until 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.”

However, Section 64 of the Radio and Television Operation Act stipulates that the 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 the NBTC failed to show that the programs in question of Voice TV had caused any serious damage to public interest.

This is the first time that Voice TV fought back the NBTC for its suspension order. Ngamsom said Voice TV avoided to take on the NBTC in the past because it wanted to work with the regulator without any tension. Not this time.

Whether this rare victory will set a precedent for media outlets, including Voice TV, that dare to push the boundaries of their coverage remains to be seen.

 

Sinfah Tunsarawuth, an independent media lawyer based in Bangkok. He teaches media laws to communication students and provides consultancy on freedom of expression and media issues to various clients. A journalist of long standing, he has contributed to Reuters and Dow Jones Newswires. He can be reached at sinfah.sf@gmail.com

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