Before he was overthrown in a military coup in September, Thaksin Shinawatra had continued to weaken the independence of the media and to harass dissidents. The government set up by the junta has not lifted pressure or censorship, particularly online.
The year 2006 turned into a nightmare for Prime Minister and media magnate Thaksin Shinawatra. At the start of the year, the Thaksin clan suffered a stinging defeat in the courts with the victory of press freedom activist Supinya Klangnarong whom it had tried to gag. She had in particular condemned the head of state’s conflict of interests. Under growing pressure from street demonstrations, Thaksin Shinawatra mobilised his supporters against media hostile to the government. At least six journalists were physically attacked or threatened in April by some of his supporters. Despite his promises, the prime minister continued to bring “defamation” suits against media who criticised him, demanding grossly inflated damages. In 2006, at least five journalists were sacked as a result of government pressure.
The leading newspapers decided to make a stand against the interventionism of the Thaksin government and in May carried a collective editorial in which they stressed their commitment to public service journalism. The Thai Journalists’ Association (TJA) also campaigned for defamation to be decriminalised.
During the 19 September coup, troops were deployed around TV stations and the junta, which proclaimed itself the National Security Council, threatened to bring back censorship. The national terrestrial channels along with CNN and the BBC broadcast on cable were blacked out for several hours, apart from the independent Nation TV. A few hours after the coup, the new information minister instructed the media to be “co-operative” and “to limit, control, stop or destroy news which could damage the constitutional monarchy”. In the days following the coup, around 300 community radios suspected of supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, were shut down in the northern provinces.
General Surayud Chulanont, who was named as interim prime minister on 1st October, promised to guarantee press freedom and to draw up a new constitution, to “cleanse the country of corruption” and to pacify the Muslim south. It was only on 11 December that the government lifted martial law in 40 of the country’s 76 provinces. A thousand people took advantage of the situation to urge Bangkok to restore the 1997 constitution, of which Articles 39, 40 and 41 guaranteed press freedom.
The press, which was mostly favourable to the departure of Thaksin, did not get much more freedom from the military government. Journalists questioned by Reporters Without Borders confirmed that they were still under pressure. When in December the administration presented a budget in which military spending was hiked by 34%, the press did not dare publish critical editorials. Likewise, the Thai Journalists’ Broadcast Association (TJBA) said in October that the television was no freer after the end of the Thaksin regime. “In the past, we suffered from self-censorship. Today, we cannot even investigate the activities of the junta (...) we are being stifled”, said one of the organisers of the TBJA, three weeks after the coup.
Under the threat of the crime of “lese majesty”, punishable by 15 years in prison, the press is very limited in talking about King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family, who quickly gave their support to the military government. During anti-government demonstrations, Thaksin Shinawatra and his opponents mutually accused each other of such an offence, putting several media magnates, including his fierce opponent Sondhi Limthongkul, at risk of being sentenced to heavy prison terms.
The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology acknowledges that it blocks thousands of website, most of them pornographic. A few sites criticising the king or condemning corruption are also filtered. In the days after the coup, there was an increase in cases of political censorship online. Some pages of the BBC and CNN, along with Thai online publications hostile to the army takeover, were made inaccessible. By the end of 2006, filtering of the Internet had returned to its usual level.