[Thailand] ‘Reform’ further restricts free speech and media

Thailand has been under the rule of the military junta, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), for four consecutive years now. One of the juntas in power for the longest period of time in recent history, the NCPO, facing no military or civil resistance to its reign, continues to suppress any criticism by media or the general public, banning any political gathering of five people or more and prosecuting its critics with sedition charges.

It is now certain that Thailand would not have a general election in 2018 because of the delay of legislation needed for such elections, and the soonest that could be will be in the first quarter of 2019, if not later. The junta maintains its ban on any activities by political parties in anticipation of the upcoming elections.

Thai mainstream media have continued to avoid any criticism of the junta and its undertaking by applying self-censorship as it is well-known that the junta leader, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, concurrently the prime minister, has little tolerance of any criticism. The junta and its installed government has relentlessly charged critics with Section 116 under the Criminal Code, seen as the sedition law, for any act that will “raise unrest and disaffection amongst the people in a manner likely to cause disturbance in the country.” 

The provisions of Section 116 have been broadly applied to prosecute any person that published criticism of the junta or government, staged any protest, or even simply called for an early election. Section 116 imposes a jail term of up to seven years.

Due to current economic stagnation and limited resources in commercials, not only print media that have been hard-hit, forcing newspapers and magazines to shutter, but many of the new comers of terrestrial digital televisions also had to terminate their operations or seek new investors to help them survive.

This has allowed a huge conglomerate like the Beer Chang group to make inroads into the digital televisions, and others who are already an operator in the business are expanding by buying into troubled stations.

New, possibly restrictive, media legislation are also pending as the junta has included media reform as a key element of its national reform, while journalists and other media professionals are anxious that the upcoming laws could make current environment even more repressive.

In its annual media situation report of 2017, the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) labeled 2017 as the year of “control, harass, struggle.” It said in its introduction of the report that: “This is another year that media have to operate under strict oversight by State’s power, and have to face with an anti-media attitude of the (government’s) leaders.” It said that the government has exploited the excuse of national security to oppress media, using it as a tool in intervening with their operations.

 

Suppression of free speech and media freedom

The military junta continued to prevent the holding of any gathering or activity that aims to touch on the government or the monarchy, and arrested those who resisted such its order or those who did not comply with regulations under the Public Assembly Act of 2015. More importantly, the junta has been strictly enforcing its order prohibiting any holding of political gathering of five persons or more.

Human rights non-government organization (NGO) iLaw reported that in 2017, at least 21 public assemblies were told to call off, another six such gatherings or protests were intervened by authorities to divert their activities, and at least 100 people were called to attend “attitude adjustment” sessions by the junta or were visited at their home by soldiers. iLaw noted that many of the gatherings or protests were involved with environmental issues.

In its report published on its website, iLaw said 18 persons were charged with lèse majesté law, or defaming the monarchy, which is Section 112 under the Criminal Code, in 2017, which included a 14-year-old. Another 10 persons were charged with Section 116 under the same code.

On 20 March 2018, Voice TV, a terrestrial digital broadcaster, was ordered by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the country’s broadcasting and television regulator, to suspend its “Tonight Thailand” news talk program for 15 days after an episode aired on 1 March touched on events in the French Revolution.

The NBTC said the content “appeared to cause confusion and incite conflicts or divisions in the country,” according to a Bangkok Post report. Voice TV, run by the only son of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by a military coup in September 2006, has been under close watch of the military junta since the latest May 2014 coup.

The digital broadcasting license of the station was suspended for seven days in March 2017 and another program “Daily Dose” suspended for seven days in February 2017 citing violations of Section 37, Broadcasting and Television Business Act B.E. 2551 (2008) and NCPO announcement nos. 97/2557 and 103/2557 (2014).

In August 2017 for the third time, the NBTC ordered to suspend PeaceTV for 30 days for airing “content dealing with plots to undermine the constitutional monarchy.”

On 30 March 2018, Vanchai Tantivitayapitak, a news director of PPTV, another terrestrial digital television channel, was pressured to resign after its various reports that were critical of the military government, particularly the scandals surrounding expensive watches of Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, a deputy premier and concurrently the defense minister. A post by Vanchai on his Facebook on the day implied that he was leaving the station.

TJA, on the other hand, highlighted a case whereby a reporter of Isra News, a Thai-language news agency closely associated with TJA, was charged for trespassing by police on 9 August 2017 as he was looking for evidence of undeclared property of a former national police chief, who was under investigation by the national anti-graft body. This police chief is a younger brother of Defense Minister Gen. Prawit.

TJA saw this as a real case of harassment as the journalist had clearly identified himself when he entered the area of the apartment building in question. He was taken to a police station for questioning and had his cell phone seized before being released.

 

Media reform is mandatory

Media reform is now required by the law, no matter professional journalists want it or not. This is part of the efforts by the military junta to set its imprint on the direction of Thailand’s development for the next 20 years.

The junta promulgated its Constitution on 6 April 2017, which is now the Constitution of Thailand. As Thailand always has lengthy constitutions, this current one comprises 279 sections (or articles).

Section 65 of the 2017 Constitution states that the State shall provide for a set of national strategies as the goal of sustainable national development, and requires the government to enact law for such purposes.

The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has enacted two pieces of legislation – the Act on Provision of National Strategies of 2017 and the Act on Plan and Procedures of National Reform of 2017. Both laws came into force on the same day of 1 August 2017.

The 2017 Constitution requires the government to finish drafting of the national strategies within one year after the enactment of the Act on Provision of National Strategies. Therefore, the national strategies must be ready by the end of July 2018.

The Act on Provision of National Strategies requires the setting up of a national strategies committee chaired by the prime minister to draft the strategies, which must set development goals for the country for at least the next 20 years.

This committee has appointed six other committees to do the drafting on different categories, which are (1) security; (2) competitiveness; (3) capacity development of human resources; (4) opportunity building and social equality; (5) growth based on quality of life that is friendly to the environment; and (6) equilibrium adjustment and development of public administration.

The other law, the Act on Plan and Procedures of National Reform of 2017, states that any national reform shall be in line with the national strategies. This Act requires the government to come up with reform plans in 11 categories: (1) politics; (2) administration of the State; (3) law; (4) judiciary system; (5) education; (6) economy; (7) national resources and the environment; (8) public health; (9) mass media and information technology; (10) society; and (11) corruption.

On 6 April 2018, these 11 reform plans were published on the royal gazette, making them enforceable now.

 

Goal of media reform

The media reform plan sets the goal as to “emphasize the creation of an equilibrium between freedom of responsible media operation and fair regulation.” The wording makes it clear that the junta wants to see media become more responsible. It, therefore, plans to enact a law on media ethics and profession, whose current draft has been strongly opposed by media organizations and their members.

On 2 May 2017, in an open letter signed by 30 media organizations and bodies, media professionals said despite the fact that proposed provisions on requiring media workers to be licensed and penalty for those operating without a license have been taken out, the draft bill remained adversary to freedom and independence of media.

They said the draft still allowed senior government representatives to sit on a body proposed by the law to regulate media professionals. They stood firm on a self-regulation mechanism, saying that the current oversight system among themselves will be strengthened.

The media reform plan also includes drafting three other new pieces of legislation, which are national cyber security, personal information protection, and communication satellites and space operation. This set of legislations, while intended to protect national security, right to privacy, and public law and order would have impact on almost all business entities including media and internet service providers which use, process, and provide data and information to the public. The current draft versions expected to be adopted by the junta-installed legislative assembly later this year contain several vaguely-worded articles and terms regarding regulated content and state power, which legal and free expression watchers said do not balance well between privacy and free expression. The reform plans also include media literacy as a subject for high-school and undergraduate students by the year 2019.

 

New comer digital TV hit hard

Most of the 24 commercial terrestrial digital television channels have been in dismay since winning licenses in April 2014 from the regulator NBTC, due to the high license fees and sluggish economy. Many of them have been operating in red ever since.

Then came a relief for the operators. On 13 March 2018, the Administrative Court ruled that Thai TV Co., Ltd, which had run two such channels and has been in financial troubles, were entitled to terminate its licensing agreements with the NBTC since the regulator could not comply with its commitment in laying down proper infrastructure for the digital television system.

The court also ruled Thai TV did not have to pay licensing fees to the NBTC from the years it had stopped operating the two channels, but still needed to pay for the years it was operating. This resulted in the NBTC having to return a large amount of bank guarantees the company has placed with the commission.

Thai TV notified the NBTC in late May 2015 that it wanted to stop operating its two digital channels, and the two went completely off the air beginning on 1 November of that year.

Observers saw the Administrative Court’s ruling as opening the door for other cash-strapped operators to follow suit by seeking to terminate their licensing agreements with the NBTC, if they decided to discontinue with their operation.

Both the NBTC and Thai TV have said they would appeal to the supreme Administrative Court, whose ruling would be final. The NBTC said the central Administrative Court did not take into consideration some key factors of the case in making its ruling, while the company said it should have been awarded financial damages.

 

Other channels also suffering

Many other stations, which could not continue to shoulder piling debts, have resorted to seeking new investors, selling non-performing assets, or scaling down operation.

On 28 February 2018, Nation Multimedia Group (NMG), which runs two of the digital television channels, told its shareholders in an extraordinary meeting that it plans to sell THB 1.42 billion (USD 45.9 million) worth of its assets, including one of the company’s two terrestrial digital television channels and its Nation University. NMG will continue to operate the other channel.

The number was the accumulated base prices of those assets of NMG, which seemed to want to keep its English-language daily The Nation and two other Thai-language dailies. The company said it plans to sell the assets, which it saw as non-core businesses, in six months. NMG has already appointed some new directors, including executives of News Network Corporation, which runs news agencies and a digital television channel.

Meanwhile, TJA reported that Voice TV, which has been critical of the junta and government, has terminated employment of 127 staff members and had to adjust its programming and content to avoid being under close watch of the government.

In the first half of 2017, the wealthy Prasartthong Osoth family acquired 50 percent in a subsidiary of entertainment conglomerate GMM Grammy, which operates Channel 31, a digital television station. The Prasartthong Osoth family, owning a major hospital and an airline, is already operating another digital station of Channel 36, or PPTV.

On 24 August 2017, the Siriwattanapakdi family, which owns the gigantic Beer Chang group and a large number of properties in Thailand, acquired 50 percent in Channel 25, another digital television station of GMM Grammy. Earlier on 25 November 2016, the Siriwattanapakdi family acquired 47.62 percent in Amarin Printing and Publishing, which owns the digital television station of Channel 34. These are the first major inroads of the Beer Chang group into the television business.

 

Print media continue to fall

On 5 March 2018, Chiang Mai News decided to stop its print version after almost 27 years, and continues to publish only online. It is based in northern Chiang Mai city and covers eight provinces in the northern part of Thailand.

At least eight men, women, lifestyle and news magazines published their last edition in 2017 as they could not sustain the declining revenue from advertisement and plunging number of readers. Others which have shifted to online platforms earlier as a mean to survive are facing a steep competition among themselves in terms of resource and speed to cash in on younger readers who favor packaged content and easily attracted to innovation and changes.

 

Some key pending cases

On 26 March 2018, British labor rights activist Andy Hall was ordered by a Bangkok court to pay THB 10 million (USD 315k) in damages to Natural Fruit Co., Ltd. for defaming the pineapple canner. Hall, who left Thailand in 2016, has said he would appeal the verdict. This was one of a number of defamation lawsuits filed by the company against Hall for his allegations of abuse of migrant workers in its pineapple processing.

On 20 March 2018, an appeals court overturned an earlier ruling of a first court and decided that the lower court shall accept for proceeding a criminal defamation case gold miner Tungkum Limited has filed against public broadcaster Thai PBS and its four television journalists out of a report that the company’s mining has adversely affected the environment in northeastern Loei province. Tungkum filed the case in November 2015 and in November 2016, a criminal court in Bangkok ruled not to take up the case, saying the broadcaster and its journalists were just doing their job as news media. With now the appeals court’s ruling, the lower criminal court would have to start trial of this case.

On 15 February 2018, former House speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat filed two civil lawsuits against outspoken TV show host Chuvit Kamolvisit and his co-hosts over broadcasts linking Yongyuth to money laundering and human trafficking. One of the lawsuits was involved with a show broadcast on Channel 33 while the other was with another show on Thairath TV or Channel 32. Yongyuth sought THB 100 million (USD 3.22 million) as damages from each of the cases. Earlier, on 5 February 2018, Yongyuth filed two other criminal defamation cases against the same two groups of the accused. Criminal defamation carries up to two years of imprisonment in Thailand.

On 9 February 2018, Internal Security Operations Command Region 4 and Fourth Army Area, both responsible for military operations in the four southern-most provinces of Thailand, filed a defamation lawsuit against Thai-language news website Manager Online, and on 14 February 2018 filed a separate defamation lawsuit against Ismael Teh, a leading human rights campaigner in Patani, one of the four southern provinces, both for allegations of torture of insurgent suspects during military custody.

 

Some good news

On 29 March 2018, a Thai court acquitted Thanat Thanawatcharanont, better known by his stage name “Tom Dundee”, of his third lese majesty charge, citing insufficient evidence. The folk-singer-turns-activist was arrested in July 2014 and charged with four counts of lèse majesté, which carries up to 15 years in prison per offence. Thanat has been convicted of two of the charges and is still serving a combined sentence of 10 years and 10 months. Thanat’s fourth lèse majesté act still awaits court trial. Acquittal of lèse majesté charge is rare in Thailand.

On 29 March 2018, a provincial court acquitted a charge against Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, or “Pai Dao Din,” and his friend for campaigning against the junta-sponsored 2017 Constitution. The two were arrested on 6 August 2016 for distributing leaflets asking people to vote against the Constitution in a national referendum one day after. The court said their act did not violate provisions in the referendum law.

 

Outlook

The world will be watching whether Thailand will hold a general election in early 2019. And if that does happen, whether Gen. Prayut will return as the prime minister.

Media professionals would be anxious to see whether the junta would ignore their complaints and push ahead with its own version of a bill to regulate their profession. This bill and the others the junta has in the pipeline would determine the future climate of free speech and media freedom in this country.

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