Amid continuing turmoil and opposition protests that often target news media, Reporters Without Borders has compiled the following assessment of the state of media freedom in Thailand and the threats to its news providers.
Forty years after a student uprising toppled a military dictatorship, the Thai media are able to criticize the government. The leading English-language dailies, The Nation and Bangkok Post, and the Thai-language Daily News, Kom Chad Luek, ThaiRath, Matichon and Khaosod Daily are free to speak their mind on every subject bar one, the king and the royal family.
Like the protesters who showed their respect for King Bhumipol by observing a truce on his birthday last week, most journalists display a similar respect for the monarchy.
During a 2006 coup, the military seized control of TV stations in order to announce a regime change. Political instability ever since then has been the main cause of the threats to Thai and foreign journalists and Thailand’s fall in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index to its current position of 135th out of 179 countries.
The safety of journalists is also threatened in the south of the country by Islamist rebels who carry out bombings.
As a result of Thai society’s extreme polarization, most of the leading political events in recent years have had a big impact on the media, which are ensnared in a power struggle between the two main political coalitions.
The Bangkok headquarters of ASTV, a satellite TV station owned by one of the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also known as the Yellow Shirts, was the target of gunshots and grenades in November 2008. At the same time, a pro-government radio station was attacked and, in Chiang Mai, a pro-opposition radio host was gunned down.
Clashes between the army and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the Red Shirts, in Bangkok in 2010 led to the shooting deaths of Hiroyuki Muramoto, a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters, on 10 April 2010, and Italian photo-journalist Fabio Polenghi, during an army assault on protesters on 19 May 2010.
Two months after the Red Shirt opposition’s victory in the July 2011 elections, Channel 7 TV journalist Somjit Nawakruasunthorn was the victim of a Red Shirt campaign of intimidation.
Last month, protests in Bangkok against a proposed amnesty for Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister now living in self-exile, degenerated into violence against news media accused of biased coverage of the protests.
Protesters surrounded vehicles owned by Channel 3 and Channel 7 and invaded the offices of several media. On 25 November, German freelance journalist Nick Nostitz only just escaped a mob egged on by a protest leader, who accused Nostitz of being a “Red Shirt” government supporter.
The threat of lawsuits and prosecution compounds the physical dangers. Journalists take great care with their political reporting to avoid judicial reprisals from either government officials or opposition representatives. In May 2011, the authorities raided ten community radio stations in the Bangkok region that were linked to the Red Shirts.
The threat of a lèse-majesté charge under article 112 of the penal code is used by the authorities to gag the most outspoken media. Any citizen can file a complaint accusing someone of an article 112 violation and the authorities are required to investigate all such complaints.
According to this article, “anyone defaming, insulting or threatening the king, the queen, the crown prince or the regent” is guilty of lèse-majesté.
A Bangkok court’s recent decision to uphold a suspended prison sentence for Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of the online newspaper Prachatai, for comments critical of the monarchy posted by visitors to her site has set a disturbing precedent. Those who host online content can now be held directly responsible for what is posted by third parties.
The 11-year jail sentence that Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, editor of the bi-monthly Voice of Thaksin, received in January 2013 has had a deterrent effect on the entire national press.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), a body created in December 2010 to regulate the broadcast media and telecommunications sector, is having to deal with many questions raised about it methods and transparency, and has yet to contribute to the debate about article 112.
Independent bloggers are also exposed to the threat of lèse-majesté charges. With nearly a third of the population connected to the Internet, the Thai blogosphere is not only very active but also subject to close scrutiny, especially content linked to the monarchy.
The justice ministry created a “cyber scout” unit to track down “illicit” online content in late 2010 and between 80,000 and 400,000 URLs had reportedly been blocked by January 2011. Alternative news sites suspected of supporting the Red Shirts were often censored and criticism of the government in a blog often led to lèse-majesté accusations.
With a conviction rate in lèse-majesté prosecutions still running at around 95 per cent, everything suggests that the authorities intend to continue using this weapon. In fact, the ministry of information and communication technologies said in October that it wanted to amend the lèse-majesté law so that the authorities could block sites without having to refer to a judge.
As the current protests continue to grow in intensity despite Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s announcement of parliament’s dissolution, journalists are increasingly exposed to both angry demonstrators and security forces that could at any moment decide that it is time to end the protests.
Reporters Without Borders urges the security forces and protesters not to target journalists and media workers, regardless of the political position of the media employing them.
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Opponents reject call for general election and want an unelected 'people's council', raising fears for democracy
The Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, said on Tuesday she would not resign before national elections due on 2 February, her voice filling with emotion as she discussed her family's role in Thai politics.
After weeks of sometimes violent street rallies, protesters rejected her call on Monday for a general election and said she should be replaced by an unelected "people's council", a proposal that has stoked concern that south-east Asia's second-biggest economy may abandon democracy.
Yingluck said she would continue her duties as caretaker prime minister until the election. "Now that the government has dissolved parliament, I ask that you stop protesting and that all sides work towards elections," she told reporters as she went into a cabinet meeting. "I have backed down to the point where I don't know how to back down any further." She allowed tears to well in her eyes briefly before composing herself.
Yingluck, a 46-year-old former businesswoman, had no political experience before contesting a 2011 election which she won by a landslide, with largely rural support.
The protesters – a diverse collection aligned with Bangkok's royalist elite – want to oust Yingluck and eradicate the influence of her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the military in 2006 and has chosen to live in exile rather than serve a jail term for abuse of power.
It is the latest flare-up in almost a decade of rivalry between forces aligned with the Bangkok-based establishment and those who support Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who won huge support in the countryside with policies designed to help the poor.
An estimated 3,000 protesters camped out overnight around Government House, where Yingluck has her office, a day after 160,000 protesters converged peacefully on the complex.
They made no attempt to get into the grounds, which appeared to be defended by unarmed police and soldiers.
Yingluck's Puea Thai party enjoys widespread support in the populous north and north-east, Thailand's poorest regions. She will be its candidate for prime minister if the party wins in February, a party official said.
In contrast, the protesters are drawn from Bangkok's upper and middle classes, including civil servants and prominent business families, along with people from the south where the opposition Democrat party has long held sway.
The spark for this latest unrest was a government bid last month to force through an amnesty bill that would have expunged Thaksin's conviction, allowing him to return home a free man. He is widely seen as the power behind his sister's government.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's overriding aim is to get rid of what he calls the "Thaksin regime" - the extended family's influence on politics but also the people placed in senior positions in state agencies and the police who are believed to answer to him.
The protest movement, he told supporters on Monday, "cannot allow political tyranny, under the guise of majority rule, and crony, monopolistic capitalism to collude to use parliamentary dictatorship to betray the trust of the people".
In a late-night speech to supporters at Government House on Monday, Suthep gave Yingluck 24 hours to step down.
"We want the government to step aside and create a power vacuum in order to create a people's council," said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the protest group. Suthep has said this council would be made up of appointed "good people".
Lawmakers from the Democrat party resigned from parliament on Sunday, saying they could not work with Yingluck.
Its leaders have refused to say whether they would participate in the election. Some have marched with Suthep, including Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister until the 2011 election, with Suthep as one of his deputies.
Suthep's campaign opens up the prospect of a minority of Thailand's 66 million people dislodging a democratically elected leader, this time without help from the military, unlike when Thaksin was deposed.
The politically powerful army, which has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, has said it does not want to get involved, although it has tried to mediate.
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Protest leaders have vowed to continue their demonstrations but have yet to offer a viable plan for running the country
The decision on Monday by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's embattled prime minister, to dissolve parliament and call a snap general election seems unlikely to cure the latest violent spasm gripping the Bangkok body politic, stemming from more than a decade of indigestible north-south, rich-poor social divisions and visceral personality politics.
Despite the PM's ostensibly placatory announcement, protest leaders and opposition parties vowed to continue mass anti-government demonstrations, suggesting the proposed 2 February poll amounted to a trick to perpetuate the rule of the Shinawatra "regime". But so far they have failed to come up with a viable alternative plan for running the country.
The standoff threatens further to undermine democratic governance in a country where military coups have been commonplace and where parties defeated in elections have rarely accepted their fate with grace or dignity. Some Thai political scientists, in the style of America's Tea Party, are now claiming that winning the most votes is not necessarily the most important qualification for legitimately holding political office.
Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy PM who leads the protests, said early elections would make no difference. "The dissolving of parliament is not our aim," he said.
Suthep has instead been calling for a new prime minister to be chosen by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's ageing and influential monarch. He has also floated a proposal for an appointed "people's council" comprising "decent men" whose main task would appear to be the reconfiguring of the electoral system to ensure Yingluck, and her exiled elder brother and former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, never again hold political power.
Suthep suggests his Platonic wise-men oligarchy would eventually give way to an elected government, but has not said how long this would take. Opportunistic opposition parties, who also abhor Thaksin and his kin, have shown a similar lack of responsibility. In 2010, then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of an unelected government installed by Thaksin's opponents, survived a similar wave of street protests by pro-Thaksin "red shirts". He had the army to thank for his rescue; about 90 people died during the unrest.
Now Abhisit, leader of the main Democratic party opposition, is also refusing to say whether he will participate in the proposed February election. Most opposition MPs resigned from parliament on Sunday. "House dissolution is the first step towards solving the problem," Abhisit said. "Today, we march. I will walk with the people to Government House."
Yingluck's decision to allow Thailand's 66 million-strong population what is effectively a referendum on her Puea Thai government, which won in a landslide result in 2011, looks statesmanlike on the face of it, but is not quite what it seems.
"The government does not want any loss of life … At this stage, when there are many people opposed to the government from many groups, the best way is to give back the power to the Thai people and hold an election. So the Thai people will decide," she said in a televised speech.
Yet the near certainty that Puea Thai will win again accounts for Suthep's and Abhisit's reluctance to go down the electoral route. While the opposition can count on support from middle-class Thais in Bangkok and the non-Muslim areas of the south and from pro-establishment royalists, they have been permanently outnumbered, electorally speaking, since Thaksin first won office in 2001 backed by the poorer, rural masses of the north and east.
A telecoms billionaire whose populist presumption deeply offended traditional Thai hierarchies, Thaksin was deposed during his second term in 2006 by an army coup and fled the country two years later amid corruption and bribery allegations.
Thaksin now lives in exile in Dubai, from where, his detractors allege, he controls the Bangkok government from a distance. The present unrest was sparked last month when Yingluck proposed an amnesty law that would have allowed her brother to return.
Yingluck might also be congratulated for avoiding the violent clashes that have disfigured previous upheavals, and for keeping the army out of the fray. Thailand's military has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, and is no stranger to political meddling.
On the other hand, the generals, like the king, are no friends to the Thaksin clan. This time around, the army has said it does not want to get involved, although it has tried to mediate.
Both sides have invoked the authority of the king to boost their positions. Both observed a truce last Thursday, the monarch's 86th birthday. But the reality is that Bhumibol is ill, frail and rarely seen. Nor is it wholly clear that the monarchy will survive his passing. Thais must find another way out of the blind alley into which they have blundered.