[Thailand] SEAPA stands behind Voice TV; urges court to uphold international norms on press freedom and free expression

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) stands solidly behind, and is unwavering in its support for, Voice TV in the latter’s effort to assert its right to press freedom, particularly in the midst of the difficult situation where it finds itself anew, having been slapped with another suspension order.

SEAPA welcomes and lauds the injunction issued by this honorable court, lifting the 15-day suspension of Voice TV by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).

SEAPA is a regional organization based in Bangkok, with 12 member organizations across seven countries in the region, including Thailand.

For the past 20 years, SEAPA has been actively promoting two fundamental rights covered in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: Press freedom and Freedom of Expression. These, too, are enshrined in the Thai Constitution, which is the fundamental law of the land, on which all enabling laws must rest.

Apart from SEAPA, international bodies across the globe, including the United Nations, affirm the right of the press to report freely and independently, without state interference.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in no uncertain terms:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – another milestone document – has a similar provision, also called Article 19. It states:

“Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.” 

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” 

These principles are as clear as day. The second bears repeating: Freedom of expression, which is the basis of press freedom, includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, through any media (underscoring added). 

To quote a non-profit international organization that goes by the name Article 19:

“The role of the media in any society is to investigate and share information and ideas, in particular on issues of public interest, so that the public is informed and able to play their part in political, economic and cultural life. International law therefore requires States not only to refrain from controlling or restricting the media, but also to create an enabling legal and regulatory environment that allows the development of a free and diverse media landscape.” 

Thailand is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the ICCPR, which is one of several other international treaties it has signed onto, affirmed and committed to uphold. This means Thailand values international norms, not least of which of course is press freedom.

Being a State party to the ICCPR and based on Thailand’s Constitution, the country is under obligation to observe Article 19 and all other articles of ICCPR for that matter. To do otherwise is to violate press freedom.

While the ICCPR is subject to permissible limitations, those limitations are based on laws that “must provide sufficient guidance to those charged with their execution to enable them to ascertain what sorts of expression are properly restricted and what sorts are not.”

The NBTC cited as basis for its suspension order on Voice TV the “provocative content” aired on the Tonight Thailand  on December 16 and on Wakeup News on January 21, 28, 29 and on February 4.

SEAPA finds NBTC’s justification sorely inadequate. By what measure was the controversial program content found “provocative?” The NBTC’s reference to opinions and comments made in the programs that were critical of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha and the army was quite instructive. The regulator invariably described those views as mostly “unfair”, “biased”, “unsubstantiated,” “inaccurate,” and confusing or misleading to the public.

By what and whose standards were these opinions judged as unfair, biased, unsubstantiated, inaccurate, confusing, and misleading? Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the comments aired on these programs were as the NBTC described them, did it warrant suspension of Voice TV’s operations? SEAPA finds the suspension order disproportionate to the so-called infraction of Voice TV.

It would have been prudent for the public agency or civil servants concerned to have asked for space (or air time) to express their disagreement or views on the comments the NBTC has taken issue with. Ordering the TV station’s temporary shutdown was tantamount to abuse of power and violates international norms on press freedom.

Those comments that became the basis of the suspension order against Voice TV are well within the bounds of media pluralism – a universal principle that global bodies like the UN encourage and more tolerant or liberal countries uphold.

Media pluralism means allowing space for varying voices, opinions, and analyses. A plurality of voices is vital to any well-functioning society, because it encourages people to respect divergent views while co-existing peacefully with one another. Media pluralism serves this function.

Media pluralism is in keeping with the role of the press and is well within the bounds of free expression – consistent with international standards and enshrined in Article 35 of Thailand’s 2017 Constitution.

SEAPA believes Voice TV has helped to contribute to a plurality of views and (sources of) information, including on the elections. Suspension of the station’s operation deprives the people of the opportunity to hear diverse views and opinions in order to make an informed choice. As such it violates the Constitution and goes against the grain of international treaties.

Voice TV endeavors to provide a platform for a variety of views, including those that are usually excluded from discussion in the mainstream and state-controlled media. By doing so, it has shown its impartiality, and it must not be punished for doing so.

We urge this honorable court to rule on the basis of international human rights standards that the government of Thailand has committed itself to, together with numerous other countries in the world that are united by their firm adherence to the principles that lie at the core of press freedom, freedom of expression, and pluralism – long held as positive values in peaceful and progressive societies.

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