Thai reporters, editors axed as press freedom declines

'Climate of fear' prevails as freedom of speech not guaranteed by law, says news columnist Pravit
Thai reporters, editors axed as press freedom declines

Outspoken Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk protests against the restraints on freedom of speech imposed by the Thai junta as he stands in front of the military headquarters in Bangkok shortly after the 2014 coup in this file photo. (Photo supplied) 

ucanews.com reporter, Bangkok
Thailand
May 30, 2018
Pravit Rojanaphruk was pressured into resigning from his job at The Nation, a well-known English-language daily in Thailand, shortly after the military coup four years ago despite having been with the paper for more than two decades.  
 
He was then ordered to attend "attitude adjustment" sessions conducted by military officers at local Thai army bases.
 
And he is now facing two charges of sedition over some comments he made on Facebook last year, and could be jailed for up to 14 years.
So what "crime" did this Thai journalist commit? He criticized the country's ruling junta.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as Thailand's military government calls itself, overthrew a democratically elected government in a bloodless coup in May 2014, and has since clamped down on dissenting voices.

One of those voices belonged to Pravit, who now writes for Khaosod English, a small online Thai newspaper. In column after column for Khaosod English, the maverick journalist has castigated the generals in charge of the country for undermining checks and balances, failing to abide by the rule of law, refusing to hold elections, and suppressing dissent.

Pravit is also a regular at the small pro-democracy rallies that are staged sporadically by a handful of young activists. He reports on them using live feeds on social media despite the government having imposed a long ban on political gatherings.

In the process, Pravit has earned himself plenty of friends among like-minded Thais. However, he has also drawn the ire of the junta and its supporters.

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Nonetheless, he remains surprisingly blase about the prospect of being incarcerated for his outspokenness.

"I wouldn't enjoy prison, but I never think about going into exile, as some others have," he said over a latte at a coffee shop in downtown Bangkok.

Dressed casually in an orange t-shirt, Pravit at 51 comes across as both affable and articulate.

"There is a need for some people to be here and carry on with the fight [for freedom of speech]," he added.

Pravit was referring to the several journalists, academics and pro-democracy activists who have fled in order to escape being jailed, possibly for decades, for violating Thailand's draconian lese-majeste law or its Computer Crime Act. Both laws prescribe harsh sentences for making critical comments, respectively, of the country's monarchy and junta.

Pravit Rojanaphruk shows his ink-stained fingers after he was fingerprinted at the Thai police's Crime Suppression Division over his outspoken stance against the military dictatorship in this file photo. (Photo courtesy of Pravit Rojanaphruk)

 

"Normally, defending freedom of speech and press freedom should not be something you would need to do. But in Thailand, we cannot take such freedoms for granted," Pravit said.

"I feel I have to take a stand. You can only defend free speech by exercising whatever limited freedom you have — by pushing the envelope, by pushing the limits, by pushing the boundaries."

Pushing the boundaries is surely something he is well acquainted with.

And he isn't the only Thai journalist who can make that claim.

Another outspoken political commentator is Voranai Vanijaka, a one-time magazine editor who now teaches media studies at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Voranai routinely lampoons the foibles of the powerful and critiques the NCPO. In his column for Khaosod English, which has turned into a beacon of independent journalism in Thailand, Voranai regularly takes officials to task over inane campaigns of government propaganda, suspected instances of cronyism and blatant cases of official impunity.

Voranai used to write for the Bangkok Post, the country's premier English-language daily, before his column was abruptly dropped shortly after the coup in 2014.

In the middle of May this year, the paper's editor-in-chief, Umesh Pandey, was allegedly forced to step down over what he claimed was his anti-junta stance.

"When asked to tone down [the negative coverage of the regime] I did not budge and was blunt in letting those who make decisions know that I would rather lose my position than bow my head," Pandey wrote in a statement.

"The ax finally came down on me just 60 days before my two-year contract ended," he wrote.

Several insiders, however, have questioned that narrative.

"Umesh can take credit for a more anti-junta stance at the Post, but I believe he was dismissed for a combination of reasons, including poor management, bullying and ethical breaches relating to PR firms," said a former section editor who worked under Pandey and asked to remain anonymous.

Pandey was reportedly put in charge of executing repeated budget cuts, which insiders say left the newsroom severely underfunded and undermanned during his two-year tenure.

"Most staff thought he was brought in as a hatchet man as he didn't really have the journalistic experience to become the Post's editor," the former section editor said.

"His favorite phrase when dealing with unhappy staff was 'You know where the door is.'"

Whatever the real reasons were for Pandey being removed from the position, several journalists in Thailand have been demoted or forced to resign because of their political views.

Some have even been placed under surveillance and warned by the authorities to stop criticizing the regime.

Voranai said he has not faced any harassment due to his political opinions. Yet he harbors no illusions about the constraints placed on Thai journalists, most of whom decide to censor themselves when it comes to "sensitive" issues for fear of being fired or arrested.

"Politically, we live under a military dictatorship," Voranai said.

"Legally, freedom of speech isn't guaranteed by the constitution. Therefore, politically and legally there's no such thing as freedom of speech in Thailand."

Yet unlike more repressive regimes in the world, Voranai said, Thailand's "soft dictatorship" affords a limited degree of freedom when it comes to criticism.

"Criticism of the junta is still allowed to a certain extent, but [critics are] also closely monitored," the political commentator noted. "Nonetheless, 'allowed to a certain extent' hardly qualifies as freedom of speech."

Even relatively innocuous comments can land citizens in trouble.

Recently, for instance, a 49-year-old woman reported having been dragged away by police officers from an anti-junta rally that took place on the campus of Voranai's university, long a bastion of pro-democracy activism.

The woman, who took the stage to call for a general election, said she ended up being detained against her will for days at a state-run psychiatric hospital, where she claims she was injected with sedatives. She was later released.

"When freedom of speech isn't guaranteed by law it doesn't matter how 'soft' a dictatorship is," Voranai observed.

"What people say and do is perilous, as it is subject to the whim of the junta. [You never know] whether or not the authorities will come knocking on your door," he added. "Whatever limited freedom of speech we may have is practiced under a climate of fear."

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