Bowlderized: The Domestication of Thailand’s Mass Media
The following is the third installment in the Thailand 2011 General Election Report Series published by Amsterdam & Peroff LLP, focusing on the question of why both local and foreign media in Bangkok becomes inhibited and unable to accurately report on critical political issues.
Thailand’s general election campaign got underway in the presence of the most stringent limitations to freedom of expression and freedom of the press the country has witnessed since the late 1970s. The events of past month alone exemplify the degree to which the opposition is being denied the opportunity to compete on an equal footing. Eighteen Red Shirt leaders — many of them candidates for the opposition party Pheu Thai — were charged with sedition and lese majeste in connection to a speech given by incumbent member of parliament Jatuporn Prompan during the commemoration of last year’s April 10 massacre. While Jatuporn was subsequently jailed when the courts revoked his bail, the others were charged on the basis of “body language” exhibited during the speech — smiling, clapping, and cheering were cited as their offenses. A few days after targeting the Red Shirt leaders, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) ordered police to raid thirteen community radio stations that had played Jatuporn’s now infamous speech. The stations were shut down and their equipment seized. Meanwhile, Thailand’s controversial lese majeste laws claimed two additional high-profile victims among opposition activists and critics of the regime. The editor of a banned opposition magazine, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, has been held without bail since late April, while well-known historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul was summoned by police to acknowledge charges filed, in an unprecedented move, by the Royal Thai Army.
Coming on the heels of a two-year campaign of media censorship, draconian restrictions on freedom of speech, legal harassment of political opponents, and the disproportionately harsh sentencing of many of those charged with offending the monarchy, recent developments do not bode well for the freedom, fairness, and competitiveness of the upcoming elections.
Virtually every international organization monitoring freedom of the press around the world has strongly condemned the Royal Thai Government’s campaign to silence the opposition, criminalize its own critics, and gag unsympathetic media. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) now ranks Thailand 153rd in its “Press Freedom Index,” issued in October 2010. Weeks after the release of a detailed report on internet freedom, moreover, Freedom House downgraded Thailand’s overall status to “Not Free” in its annual “Freedom of the Press” survey. This had never happened since Freedom House started assessing press freedom in 1980. Even in the 1980s, when Freedom House used to give separate scores for “print” and “broadcast,” Thailand’s “Not Free” rating on broadcast had always been accompanied by a rating of “Partly Free” on print media. Since 1989, when Freedom House began releasing combined scores, Thailand had never done worse than “Partly Free,” including in the wake of coups in 1991 and 2006. Thanks to the administration of Mark Abhisit Vejjajiva, press freedom in Thailand has been rolled back over thirty years.
As the country gears up for a historic election, this report describes the government’s attempt to silence voices of dissent, as well as the various forms of pressure (both legal and otherwise) it has brought to bear on each of the various components of Thailand’s mass media. Aside from exposing the politicized, persecutory manner in which the legislation criminalizing dissent is enforced, the report examines the stranglehold that the Thai Establishment exercises over broadcast and print media. The English-language press is singled out as a special case, owing to both its egregiously distorted coverage in the service of the Democrat Party and its Establishment backers as well as its influence on international news and perceptions of Thailand. Attention is also given to the war that the Thai state is waging for control of the internet, which presents unique challenges for the country’s overzealous censors. The report concludes with a package of minimal reforms necessary to the restoration of a free press and the re-establishment of basic democratic freedoms. These reforms, in turn, are crucial to government accountability as well as to the responsiveness of political institutions to the Thai people’s needs, interests, and aspirations.