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State and Media in Thailand During Political Transition

Chavarong Limpattamapanee
Arnaud Leveau

The Papers

State and Self Censorship during political transition

Kavi Chongkittavorn

Texte intégral

"The law of censorship has a dream," South African writer J.M. Coetze says in his book, Giving Offense, Essays on Censorship. "In this dream, the daily round of identifying and punishing malefactors will wither away; the law and its constraints will be so deeply engraved on the citizenry that individuals will police themselves. Censorship looks forward to the day when writers will censor themselves and the censor himself can retire."
General Winai Phattiyakul
Secretary General of Council for National Security
January 2007

1Modern authoritarians are getting smarter. They know that overt censorship can stir up popular opposition and jeopardize coveted membership in international organizations. So they get journalists to censor themselves, by reminding them of their "responsibilities"—and of mouldering old laws that are nevertheless still available for application, if desired.

2Hong Kong is notorious for holding journalists hostage to such techniques. In Lithuania, "self-regulation" is mandated by an act of Parliament. Even in Europe, the Council of Europe held media seminars aimed at encouraging media restraint. Phrases liked "regulated selfregulation" and "co-regulation" (rules enforced jointly by journalists and government bodies) emerged. The proliferation of Internet has spawned a whole new wave of enthusiasm for self-imposed restrictions, while boards and councils of would-be regulators threaten to institutionalize controls if service providers do not curb material deemed objectionable.

3What is important to remember is that self-censorship is still censorship, and it may be more dangerous because it is more difficult to pinpoint.

4Thailand has one of the freest media in Asia. It was ranked 29th among 192 countries by the New York-based Freedom House (FH) in the annual survey of press freedom in 2000. During the government under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overall media freedom in Thailand has dropped to a dismal ranking of 107th in the 2006 survey due to various restrictive measures placed on media including marketing tools and stock acquisitions introduced by the government and ruling party. After the coup in September last year, overall media freedom suffered, the latest FH survey ranked Thailand 126th, the worse in the Thai press history.

5That explains why the country still maintains at least 27 laws regulating the freedom of expression and press freedom. Although most of them remain benign under the current political situation, they are still effective as far as the media community is concerned. Journalists know that, should their reporting anger officials, these laws can be dusted off and used. Their very existence implies a strong message to the news media: Regulate yourselves, or we will regulate you.

6The aborted 1997 charter was clear that any law which obstructed freedom of expression and individual rights would be unconstitutional. After the September coup the constitution was abolished. Now the constitutional drafters are working on the clauses related to press freedom. They have paid more attention to broaden freedom of expression among the state-owned media and to ensure that future political interference in the media more difficult. In the next few months, journalists would find out if all anti-free press laws would all be repealed.

7Thai media community revolted back in 1997 when during charter-drafting deliberations, conservative lawmakers sought to restrict media freedom on grounds that the media was too free and unaccountable. In July 1997, 25 editors and publishers and 10 media organizations came together and form the National Press Council of Thailand, a self-regulatory body, to enforce media ethics and governance.

Reports on the monarchy, religion or court are taboo

8As a country with a constitutional monarchy, the media community knows that any report on the monarchy, religion or on court procedures is considered taboo. For instance, the local press did not report or review books related to the monarchy, The Revolutionary King, written by William Stevenson, published in 2002. The same was true for The King Never Smiles, by Paul Handley published in June 2006. The latter was more controversial because the timing of the publication was coincided with the commemoration of HM King's longest reign in June 2006. There is an understanding among the media establishments and journalists that this topic must not be reported. When the Youtube showed a video clip insulting the Thai king, the Thai authorities immediately shut down the site. In the future, more openness is required to debate on issues related to the monarchy. In 2005, the King said he could be erred as he was a human. In the past, report and criticism on religion and court was also regulated. But with scandals inside temples and other malfeasance in the Sangha Council, which oversees the Buddhist monks, in the past years the media has become more assertive in reporting religious affairs. But with the court affairs, fear still reigns in among journalists. Wrong words could bring in lawsuits. In Thailand, in time of coup or no coup, there are four major justifications that the authorities have commonly used to impose restrictions on the press.

9First and foremost is to "protect the security of the state," and there are plenty of laws that come under this category. In this case, the most important aspect is related to any writing that seems harmful to the Royal Institution; that is, anything touching upon the private lives of the King, the Queen, members of the royal families or the regent. As Thailand's democracy has burgeoned and strengthened, a once-draconian law, the Anti-Communist Act of 1952, has been annulled. The law, which has claimed many innocent lives and victims, gives power to authorities to arrest any person who is suspected of being a communist or of working as an accomplice with communist suspects. For instance, a journalist can be jailed if he or she meets or contacts a communist insider during office hours, as this is interpreted to mean that the journalist knows in advance the whereabouts of the suspect and fails to inform the authorities.

10Additional laws, such as National Intelligence Act of 1985 and the Martial Law Act of 1914 with its several amendments, are still in force. Under the Martial Law Act, for instance, military officials can immediately take control of the printing press to ban all criticisms and writings that the newspapers are levying against the government. This law goes against the new constitution, which stipulates that no authority has the power to close down printers, radio and TV stations as a means to limit freedom of expression. Another law, the so-called Administration during Crisis Law of 1953, allows military officials in each locality to declare a martial law as they deem necessary. They can also ban any new publications and they can censor letters or documents.

11A second type of legislation used to restrict the press includes laws supposedly aimed at protecting family rights and privacy of families. For example, the National Statistics Law of 1965 prevents any disclosure of specific statistical information about an individual. Another, the Sangha Council Law of 1992, stipulated that no contempt or inflammatory comments could be loaded against the Sangha Council. Criminal laws dealing with trespassing or inciting the public also can limit the press freedom. Authorities can limit media freedom to prevent 'moral decay'

12Thirdly, authorities can limit media freedom for the sake of law and order and to prevent " moral decay " in society. Several laws dealing with sexual deviancy, proliferation of obscene material or pornography and youth-related court procedure prohibit the press from naming persons involved in court cases or under investigation. Media representatives are not allowed in court to report or take photos.

13Finally, authorities can claim they need to limit freedom of expression for the sake of safeguarding public health. The Promotion and Preservation of Environment of 1992 prohibits any publication of news that is not accurate in relation to environmental conditions. The Tobacco-related Control Law of 1992 also prevents any advertising on radio and TV that is deemed detrimental to the public. The Drug Law of 1977 does not allow uncensored advertising at any time.

14The Cosmetic Law of 1994 prohibits untruth. And the government still has available special laws and regulations which can be used in an ad hoc matter, and which can infringe on the media freedom. The most famous law is the anti-Press law of 1941, which is unconstitutional. This law gives the authorities the power to ban any publication and importation of foreign publications, including the power to halt distribution within the country.

15Numerous government orders serve as guidelines for government officials to follow in disseminating information to the press or the public at large. Only officials at the director-general level can give press conference or interviews. The practice, in reality, automatically prevents junior officials from divulging any information. If they do not follow and can be proved they do not obey, they can be fired.

16Beyond all these zig-zag laws, the media also regulates its own professionals. There are times when newspapers will not name victims or publish any news that is detrimental to the Royal Institute or the Sangha Council. Even with the new constitution, which covers extensively the promotion and protection of press and individual rights, the executive branch and the Council of Ministers continue to proceed at a snail's pace to repeal all unconstitutional laws. In the past two years, authorities from various governmental organizations dealing with the media had met and drawn up new provisions that take into consideration new constitutional elements. But it would take a strong political will to move the process further.

17Special laws, which are being enacted intermittently, can also restrict and regulate the freedom of expression and press liberty. For example, the notorious Anti-press law of 1959 which gives the authority to the media official to shut down newspapers is supposed to be repealed as soon as possible. But the process drags on due to political wrangling. The law is supposed to be replaced by the Press Notification Act, which requires new publications to file information at an independent private unit. For the time being, a direct general of Royal Thai Police can prohibit import and export to the kingdom any material deemed unfitting. Police also have the right to stop any advertising if they consider it offensive to the morals of Thai people. Government officials continue to cite these laws, whenever it suits them, to harass newspapers or shut them up.

18At the moment, most journalists are satisfied with the freedom of expression in Thailand and are for the most part able to perform the watchdog role, except in regard to the Royal Institution, freedom of expression still has a long way to go in Thailand. There are some restrictive measures regarding broadcasting and online media. It remains to be seen how the new constitution will protect the freedom of expression and press freedom. So far, nobody is pushing for the abolition of those old laws which will in the future can only strengthen press freedom here.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2007

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