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Thailand needs more courageous media

Journalists become part of the problem when they self-censor and refuse to discuss sensitive topics

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: October 26, 2021 03:25 AM GMT

Updated: October 26, 2021 03:44 AM GMT

Thailand needs more courageous media

Pro-democracy activist Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak holds a flag during an anti-government march to commemorate the anniversary of the 1932 Siamese Revolution in Bangkok on June 24. (Photo: AFP)

Speaking your mind about politics can be a hazardous undertaking in Thailand. In the Southeast Asian nation, once a leading light of liberalization in the region, even relatively innocuous statements can land you in trouble as numerous citizens have learned to their cost.

Hundreds of outspoken young Thais have in recent months been charged with sedition, royal defamation and other crimes for simply stating their views in public, whether at street demonstrations or on social media.

Some 150 predominantly young Thais, including children, have been charged with royal defamation alone over the past year, with half a dozen of them now languishing in prison pending their trials. The rest are out on bail awaiting summons to be tried. 

Their crime? They criticized the country’s monarchy or called for a reform of the institution along democratic lines, both of which are deemed a crime punishable with up to 15 years in prison per count according to Article 112 of the country’s Criminal Code.

One university student turned activist, 23-year-old Parit Chiwarak, has been charged with 20 counts of lese majeste, or royal defamation, which means that he could be sentenced to a total of 300 years in prison if found guilty on all counts and given the maximum sentence in each case. 

Even journalists are affected, chafing under severe restrictions lest they themselves run afoul of laws that demarcate the boundaries of the unsayable as per the Criminal Code, which limits freedom of expression in several broadly defined pieces of legislation such as the Computer Crime Act.

In the 1990s, Thailand earned a reputation as an emerging Southeast Asian democracy that respected freedom of expression. That is no longer the case

Like Article 112, the Computer Crime Act “drastically tightens the chokehold on online expression in Thailand,” observed Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have repeatedly decried Thai authorities for prosecuting people over their views as part of a climate of fear aimed at silencing pro-democracy activists and critics of the ruling military-allied government, whose head seized power in a coup in 2014.

“In the 1990s, Thailand earned a reputation as an emerging Southeast Asian democracy that respected freedom of expression. That is no longer the case,” Amnesty International noted in a 2019 report titled "To Speak Out Is Dangerous."

Not surprisingly, Thai journalists and media outlets pussyfoot around sensitive topics by self-censoring their coverage of issues such as student-led street demonstrations which have seen young Thais challenge time-honored political and cultural taboos. The result is often skewed coverage with important elements and key demands of pro-democracy activists left unreported.

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Yet some outspoken Thai journalists are speaking out against the onerous legal restraints.

One of them is Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent journalist who has covered youth-led street demonstrations. Pravit has just issued an open letter to his colleagues in Khaosod English, a small Bangkok-based online newspaper.

“[For] Thai journalists, as well as foreign correspondents in Thailand, the lese majeste law continues to be the biggest impediment to a free press. Only journalists in chronic denial would say they can carry out critical coverage of the monarchy institution in Thailand despite the law,” Pravit wrote on Oct. 23.

“No, censorship and self-censorship are the norm, combined with self-denial or silence due to fears of repercussions or political expediency. As the Thai press watches more people slowly taken to prison under the law, they should bear in mind that we as journalists and media organizations and press associations have an obligation to honor in this unfolding repression of fundamental rights to free expression.”

Pravit himself has practiced what he preaches, having had numerous run-ins with Thai authorities over his outspoken stance. Shortly after the coup of 2014, which was spearheaded by Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was then the army’s chief and has since been Thailand’s prime minister, Pravit was ordered to attend "attitude adjustment" sessions conducted by military officers at Thai army bases.

Three years ago he was threatened with prison on two charges of sedition over some comments he made on Facebook.

“There is a need for some people to carry on with the fight [for freedom of speech],” the journalist told UCA News.

It’s time to muster fortitude and publicly say we need to publicly discuss the law [Article 112] and make it in line with the changing world now

And so Pravit has remained forthright in his reportage about all political issues and urges other Thai journalists to do the same.

“The press could continue to watch and simply report about more prosecutions as more youths take the risks, are taken to jail, repeatedly denied bail, and refrain from questioning the anachronistic law. Such a stance means the Thai press continue to be part of the problem for their lack of courage and commitment to greater press freedom,” Pravit argued in his open letter to fellow journalists.

It remains doubtful that many of his colleagues will answer Pravit’s clarion call because speaking out on sensitive issues in Thailand can carry great risks. Many local news organizations are in no hurry to change their long-standing policy of silence on certain issues, either. 

Be that as it may, Pravit’s call for greater accountability on the part of journalists and media outlets in the face of an ongoing crackdown on young pro-democracy activists is on point.

“It’s time to muster fortitude and publicly say we need to publicly discuss the law [Article 112] and make it in line with the changing world now,” he stressed.

By continuing its “silence and docility, the Thai press will certainly be condemned by history not just for being part of the problem but for abandoning their duty due to a lack of courage to fight for the very fundamental prerequisites of their profession — press freedom and honesty to the public,” he said.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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