ANFREL released its Interim Report on the Conduct of the 2019 Thai General Election last Tuesday (26 March 2019) in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo credit: ANFREL.

[Thailand] Strong headwinds blew against free expression, media freedom ahead of polls —election observers

Limited public access to critical information. Widespread media self-censorship on pain of incurring the junta’s ire or inviting prosecution. Restricted space for independent political views.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which monitored the conduct of last Sunday’s general election in Thailand, noted the grim scenario that had hounded the Thai media as well as the public at large in the lead-up to the much-anticipated political exercise.

“Freedom of expression for individuals and media freedom leading up to the 2019 Thai general election is perhaps more controlled and restricted than during the 2011 general election, said ANFREL in its interim report released on 26 March 2019.

“Political developments in the last five years that significantly polarized the political landscape of the country further shrunk the space to express freely.”

This year’s voter turnout of 65 percent signaled “that the people still believe in the ballot and the prospect of change it can bring,” said ANFREL.

“The restrictive and highly regulated environment that confronted the Thai media ahead of the polls was a huge disservice to the cause of democracy in Thailand, and to a people who had been longing for a democratic transition,” said Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

Throughout the electoral process, Section 44 of Thailand’s 2014 Interim Constitution remained in effect. It grants the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) absolute power to prevent “threats” to public peace (see Thai Journalists Association’s open letter to political parties).

Apart from Section 44, the ANFREL report identified legal provisions that further curtailed free expression and media freedom during the Thai poll, such as NCPO announcements (no. 97/2014 and no. 103/2014) and orders (no. 41/2016 and 3/2015), the Computer Crime Act of 2007, and Section 116 (sedition) and Section 326 (defamation) of the Thai Criminal Code.

The legislation of the Cybersecurity Act  barely a month before the election added to the social media restrictions outlined by the Election Commission, noted ANFREL. In March, Reuters reported that the EC ran an “E-War Room”to “ensure orderly campaigning and to protect its candidates.”

Composed of 34 international election observers, ANFREL’s International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) described Thailand’s campaign environment as “heavily tilted to benefit the incumbent military junta and the candidates that it supports.”

It added that pro-junta parties (one of which nominated the current Prime Minister as its candidate) were reported to receive more leverage and leniency.

“While the ban on political activities and campaigning was lifted almost four months prior to the March 24 general election, the government’s populist policies and extensive field visits across the country conducted by the PM and government officials much ahead of December 2018 is seen as vote canvassing by many voters and stakeholders,” said ANFREL.

Despite these fundamental democratic shortcomings, ANFREL lauded the Thai people for their “tremendous popular effort and desire to reestablish democratic processes in the country after years of military rule.”

It has been almost eight years since the country held its last general election, and five years since the ruling junta ousted the democratically elected government (see SEAPA article by Sinfah Tunsarawuth).

You may download the ANFREL report here.

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