'Gagged' Thai media fights for a voice as elections loom

'Gagged' Thai media fights for a voice as elections loom

Political candidates debate at broadcaster, Amarin TV, in the run-up to the Thai elections [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

Bangkok, Thailand – Journalist Sirote Klampaiboon is one of the most popular presenters on Thailand’s Voice TV, a digital broadcaster that has been penalised at least 20 times for its reporting since the military seized control of the country five years ago and clamped down on freedom of expression.

Last month, the military government said it would suspend Voice TV for 15 days claiming two of its programmes – Wake Up News and Tonight Thailand – included material that was “confusing and seditious”.

But after the channel fought back, a court ruled the action illegal.

The TV station’s talk shows have long made people in high places feel “uncomfortable”, Sirote said, adding that that was the reason he disappeared from screens for a month in September.

But the election campaign has opened some room for debate.

“It’s a more chaotic situation so you can find the space to report things more openly and be more aggressive,” Sirote told Al Jazeera.

“The sources now are everywhere, so they [the government] don’t know how to deal with it.”

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A slew of restrictive laws have hobbled the Thai media since the armed forces under General Prayuth Chan-ocha took control of the government in 2014 and cracked down on freedom of expression.

But while the removal of restrictions on political activity in December has allowed parties to campaign, there has been no move to relax draconian regulations surrounding the media.

“There’s an expectation from the public for journalists to do more,” said Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

“But from the media side they have resorted to self-censorship. They are very cautious. How much can you do when you are basically gagged.”

Authority to censor

A series of special orders passed between 2014 and 2016 by the National Council for Peace and Order – the official name for the military government – ban the media from covering issues seen as undermining national security, insulting the monarchy and criticism of the administration.

The decrees also cover disinformation and defamation, allowing authorities to censor media content.

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Prayuth’s administration has far broader powers over the media than any previous military government, according to Chakrit Permpool, an adviser to the Thai Journalists’ Association.

The group urged the military last December to cancel the decrees to establish a “genuine, democratic environment” and help voters make an informed decision.

Thailand has at least 20 broadcasters, some state-owned and others private.

Since the election was called, broadcasters have been holding regular debates among the election candidates, although Prayuth has declined to participate.

At the end of February, a state-owned broadcaster booked 10 novice politicians for its weekly election show to discuss the key issues.

They matched the young politicians with a young audience, inviting 100 first-time voters into the studio and giving each of them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down card to hold up to indicate their thoughts on the issues being debated.

Orawan Choodee, a veteran political journalist, fielded questions on a range of topical issues – from what the young people thought about Prayuth’s decision not to participate in the debates to their views on the military government’s 20-year national plan.

A few days later, Orawan posted on Facebook that she had been suspended from the channel.

The broadcaster later said it was a “misunderstanding” about scheduling.

“Thailand’s elections won’t be considered credible if the media is gagged and critical commentary about military rule is prohibited,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement this week.

“The junta should understand that an election that is little more than a preordained victory for military rule will only be treated as a mockery of democracy.”

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It is not only the traditional and mainstream media that are struggling under restrictive laws.

Digital and social media also operate under strict rules that cover not only reporters, but the parties and candidates who want to use those platforms to expand the reach of their campaign.

Under new electoral rules they must register their social media handles with the authorities, and risk disqualification, jail and political bans if they do anything more than discuss policies.

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Some 50 million Thais are on Facebook so politicians cannot ignore the platform, but at the same time, it also carries significant risk.

“Facebook is being used as an arena to disarm political rivals,” said Aim Sinpeng, who researches Southeast Asia’s digital politics at the University of Sydney.

“This is in stark contrast to the 2011 election where cyberspace was much more open. Today it’s no longer possible for political parties not to be on social media, but by being on it, it opens up a wide array of potential liabilities not all political parties can afford.”

An election “war room” has been set up to trawl through hundreds and thousands of posts to make sure they do not breach any of the rules.

Sawang Boonmee, the deputy secretary general of the Elections Commission of Thailand, told Reuters news agency his team was looking for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates or use rude language”.

Nevertheless, not all media outlets have retreated into self-censorship.

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Despite the repressive environment, media such as Matichon Group, a publicly-listed publisher of three national newspapers including Khaosod whose online edition has attracted a huge following, and Prachathai, an independent non-profit online paper, have continued to question and investigate.

Voice TV is owned by Pathongthae Shinawatra, son of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but Sirote said Pathongthae takes no part in editorial decisions.

“I never consider him to interfere in our work,” Sirote said, noting that they are critical of Shinawatra successor party Pheu Thai, too.

“It never happened, not even for a single minute. The content comes from my judgement all the time.”

SEAPA’s Bacalla urged Voice TV to take legal action over last month’s attempt to close the station down. In court, she gave evidence, pointing out that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Thailand had an obligation to safeguard freedom of expression and opinion.

“It was a victory not just for Voice TV, but for the rest of the media too,” she said.

“In trying to push back they managed to make a statement.”

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