The army, which took power in a coup in September 2006, provided guarantees for press freedom while at the same time hounding media close to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The new Constitution, adopted in August 2007, guaranteed free expression, but a new security law could turn out to be dangerous. Most cases of censorship involved the Internet.
The army went along step by step with a return to democracy which culminated in the adoption of a new Constitution in 2007 and legislative elections in December, during which the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra had their revenge and saw the military suffer an overwhelming defeat. The constituent assembly appointed by the junta came up with a law promising a democratic regime, while strengthening the power of the armed forces.
In 2007, the Council for National Security (CNS), the government which emerged after the 2006 coup, concentrated its attacks on the media close to the ousted prime minister. An internal CNS memo revealed in September that a media campaign had been launched to discredit the People Power Party, a resurrection of Thaksin Shinawatra’s former party. The military could count on scores of TV and radios whose licences they controlled.
This strategy however proved ineffective because the People Power Party won the December elections. Its leader, the populist figure Samak Sundaravej, has a history of making attacks on the press which augurs badly for relations between the media and the new government.
For Chavarong Limpattamapanee, journalist and secretary general of the Press Council, the media has “well and truly come out of the Thaksin era, when they were under constant pressure. Newspaper journalists are able to write in freedom, although it’s less the case in television”. One of the managers of the daily Matichon, Pairat Pongpanit, said they could carry out investigations without obstruction, even if he acknowledged that the military leaders have not gone back on their position that the press should “cooperate” with the government and not act as “dissidents”.
Attacks concentrated on pro-Thaksin media
A television station to be run by people close to the exiled prime minister was smothered at birth by the military, while bloggers supporting the ousted head of government were arrested. The still popular “Asian Berlusconi”, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was guilty of numerous press freedom violations when he was in power, has been the bête noire of the authorities in Bangkok. In January 2007, the government told the main Thai cable TV operator to block access to CNN when it was about to broadcast an interview with the former primer minister. The Cnn.com website was also blocked. The CNS had on 10 January told all TV and radio stations not to transmit interviews with Thaksin Shinawatra or his close advisors.
The government, fearing it would become a platform for Thaksin Shinawatra, banned People Television (PTV) in March, after it had been broadcasting by satellite for just ten hours. “Repeated censorship on the part of the military junta is totally contrary to the so-called democratic aspirations the military announced when it took power,” one of the station’s managers said.
The authorities had initially tried to prevent its launch on the grounds that it had not obtained a licence to broadcast from Hong Kong. To get round the problem, PTV then made the decision to use one of the in-country satellite broadcasters, Star Channel MV1.
Is a public independent channel in the offing?
The government took over control of the kingdom’s third most watched channel, iTV, in March, imposing a record fine of 100.45 billion Baht (about two billion Euros), for non-payment of concession fees. It was handed to the public group Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT) which already owned Channel 9, various radios and the Thai News Agency (TNA).
Thaksin Shinawatra himself had bought the channel shortly after 2000. He then undermined its independence, gradually replacing investigative programmes with entertainment. After a few weeks of confusion surrounding the future of the channel, the authorities agreed to let it continue broadcasting and to provide itself with the means to turn it into an independent public channel, a first in South East Asia.
Surveillance and blocking the Internet
The law against cyber-criminality, the Computer Crime Act, came into force in July and allowed police to seize computer equipment from anyone suspected of sending messages with insulting or pornographic content. Under the new law, Internet service providers, have to keep personal details of Internet-users for 90 days. The authorities have the power to check this information without any legal checks.
In April, the government blocked video-sharing website YouTube, as well as several others which had content critical of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. YouTube was unblocked in August after at least four videos had been removed. The Thai ministry of information and communications welcomed this compromise. Owner of the site, Google, undertook not to put videos online that were contrary to the law or insulting to the monarchy. The minister added that YouTube had created a programme allowing Thai service providers to block access to videos deemed to be sensitive. The government followed this up by announcing it would set up a national committee for the supervision of the media to regulate content put out by radio, press, television and the Internet. This new body would comprise representatives of government and the Internet sector, including Google and Microsoft.
The authorities also blocked websites favourable to Thaksin Shinawatra, including hi-thaksin.net. The organisation, Freedom Against Censorship in Thailand (FACT), condemned increased censorship on the Net. Political discussion forums and websites close to separatist movements in the south of Thailand, PULO, BIPP, and BRN, were shut down in 2007.
One blogger, Praya Pichaï, spent two weeks in custody under Section 14 of the law against cyber-criminality for “defamation” and “harming national security”, accused of “criticising the monarchy” in an article posted on his blog (prachathai.com). The authorities then lifted the charges against him for lack of evidence, but he will be under surveillance for ten years and faces prison if he posts any new political comment on a website.