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Free media a necessity for reconciliation in Thailand, says press alliance

Veteran journalists and observers of Thai politics who have experienced at least eight military coups d'etat in Thailand in the past four decades would agree that the "short-term" measures imposed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to stifle free speech and media freedom bear some resemblance to the control tactics used since the 1970s.

Although current measures introduced have yet to include closure of newspapers or jailing of media workers, the scale of media censorship is seen as an overkill, and extensive considering the advancement of press freedom in the past two decades and the advent of online communication. Those targeted include critics of the coup and the monarchy, and supporters and key leaders of pro-government red-shirt movement and the Puea Thai Party.

Despite differences in the political context of the two periods, prohibited content defined by the NCPO Order No. 18 bear striking resemblance to the harsh censorship imposed under the Order No. 42 of the National Administrative Reform Council in 1976.

It took the media community 14 years to campaign to abolish this draconian act, imposed after the 6 October 1976 military coup by the then Armed Forces chief Gen Sa-ngad Chaloryu, which famously ended with the violent suppression of protests. Among others, Order No. 42 banned content and photos deemed insulting to the monarchy and slanderous the nation and the government. It also empowered police to close down newspapers that defied the order. Violators were meted out penaltiesof jail terms between 6 months to three-year and/or a fine up to THB 50,000 (between 2,000-2,500 USD during the time the order was in force).

Order No. 18, however, does not explicitly provide such penalties, although offenders could be subjected to military court trial in which there is no appeal process.

Checking on the media

Admittedly, the Thai media has been a stakeholder, both as a victim and an agitator, in the decade-long political divide that witnessed an earlier coup in 2006.

This unfortunate circumstance however is no justification for the excessive censorship imposed on the media, to supposedly fix the lapses in its professionalism and ethics.

The proper context for understanding the Thai media is the changing socio-economic landscape and structure of media ownership in the last 15 years. Corporate control by politicians and business cronies have exploited the free press environment to consolidate their power base by using the media as a propaganda tool.

This reality, which is not only unique to Thailand but also for other countries in Southeast Asia and beyond, has weakened the media's ability to maintain independence and perform its role as a watchdog of the institutions of power to fight against corruption and expose injustice.

Unfortunately, the public has not been vocal in defending media freedom and independence. The public does not necessarily link the closure of a newspaper or the attack of a journalist to their own constitutional right to freedom of speech and the right to know. Instead what comes across loud and clear is public hostility towards those who oppose the coup, foreign media reportage and the media community's call to review censorship measures.

The hope placed on media self-regulation in the broadcasting industry as part of the overall media reform process to democratize and free up broadcast frequencies from five decades of state monopoly, has also been challenged.

The independent National Broadcast and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has been around for just three years to regulate the fast-expanding broadcast industry. NBTC faces a major challenge to protect the public interest over multi-billion business interests, politics and the state. It took 14 years of foot-dragging and manipulation by key political institutions, the powers-that-be and business cronies before the NBTC could eventually be established, even if its establishment was mandated by the 1997 Constitution.

At the same time the existing media professional and advocacy organisations, which championed the fight for media freedom are also facing a magnitude of challenges in defending media freedom and upholding professional standards in the era of converged news media platforms.

By the time Thai society entered the political impasse in late 2013, the public and the media were already driven and spun by media-savvy politicians to create enemies from among their ranks and turn themselves against each other.

These developments demonstrate that it requires wider public participation to remedy the crisis in credibility of, and threats against the media. Given the failings of self-regulation, media stakeholders may need to consider alternatives and co-regulation and to legislate effectively against political and state ownership of media, either directly or through their proxies.

The importance of public criticism and need for media literacy framed along these lines are very much welcome, but not with current overt public support for any efforts to stifle the media. After all, article 45 the 2007 Constitution that was abolished by the generals offers the best guarantees for equal protection of the inseparable freedom of the media and the people.

As it stands, the media community remains hard pressed to employ vapid and innocuous euphemisms in their reporting about the coup and or any significant development post-coup.

Social media

Today, the mainstream media is no longer the only information gatekeeper. The new media landscape has opened up opportunities for new stakeholders including individuals to join the fray. This provides a new context which requires different approaches to address issues of journalistic professionalism and ethics.

With the rise of social media in Thailand after the 2006 coup, the public now has more means to access and spread information. The public can now generate and share content by themselves and among their peers.

By contrast to strict media censorship, nationalist fanfare, hate speech, bullying and stereotyping are whipped up in social media against critics by jubilant pro-coup parties, including supporters of the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). This type of content dominates social media and has spread beyond check, simply because any opposition to the coup is prohibited.

On many political Facebook posts of self-styled media personalities, those who either oppose the coup or decry the curtailing of free speech and media freedom would be ridiculed or stereotyped as lok suay (overly optimistic or naive), kra dae (overacting), selfish, lacking moral conscience, and, worse, a traitor. Smear media campaigns are mostly online tirades against some media figures and media houses deemed as siding with the ousted government or being critical about the monarchy.

Safe spaces

This type of public vitriol, some of which borders on hate speech, is similar to the climate of fear among the media community and citizens during the 1973 and 1976 coups, where widespread hate speech campaigns were orchestrated by an organized right-wing civilian movement.

By allowing this atmosphere to persist today, the NCPO is treading the dangerous path of further disintegrating society despite its vow to forge national reconciliation.

Instead, the lopsided measures introduced by generals to curtail opposing views will breed a culture of tolerance for hate speech, and intolerance for constructive criticism that is much needed to move the country forward. In its place a fair and open political debate about the future of the country must be established as soon as possible.

To be consistent with the NCPO's newly-released song to promote national unity with a catchy message that goes "We can differ on opinions as long as our thought carries good intention" (Rao Kid Tang Kan Dai Tha Jai Rao Kid Dee), a fair and open political debate about the future of the country must be establish soonest.

People of all sides would have to be on the same page on what it takes to get hostile camps–including in the media industry - to feel at ease and safe to dialogue.

Reconciliation needs, first and foremost, a trust-building phase, in a process that requires an assurance and a perception of fairness, which at this juncture is non-existent.

For this matter, it is crucial that civil liberties - including freedom of opinion and speech, media freedom and access to information - be restored quickly. In the interim constitution being drafted by legal experts of the NCPO, freedom of expression guarantees and protections must not be any less than those provided under articles 45-48 of the 2007 Constitution, which ironically is a product of the previous coup.

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