Regional and national civil society condemn Thai government's new media law
The passage of a new media law in early May 2017 has increased concerns that the situation for freedom of expression in Thailand is deteriorating. Under the guise of national security protection, the new legislation - "Protection and Promotion of Media Rights, Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards" - further regulates all media platforms through a National Media Council. It requires anyone generating income through news content to have a license issued by the government's regulating body. Bloggers, journalists, radio and television presenters now have to carry media identity cards at all times and face the constant threat of having their licenses revoked. Failure to comply with the new regulations carries a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison.
While Thai authorities claim that national civil society has misinterpreted the law, freedom of speech advocacy groups claim that the bill grants authorities unnecessary powers to meddle in the operation of independent media outlets. Regional media organisations have also expressed concern. A recent statement by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance included a video condemning the new law and offering solidarity to Thai journalists.
In another worrying development, Thailand’s junta is using its highly restrictive lese-majeste laws to target activists and dissidents.
Lawyer and government critic Prawet Prapanukul disappeared on 29th April 2017 after police raided his home. Prapanukul, a well-known human rights lawyer who has defended government critics, later appeared in court facing charges under the lese-majeste laws and a potential sentence of up to 150 years in jail.
Another five activists have also been charged with defaming the monarchy after using social media to share information about the disappearance of the democracy plaque in Bangkok (see section on Peaceful Assembly for more information). In a recent statement, Laurent Meillan, acting Regional Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in South-East Asia expressed concern over the more than 70 people who have been arbitrarily detained under the lese-majeste laws.
The space for freedom of expression online is also shrinking in Thailand. In addition to print and broadcast media, the internet is also highly controlled by military officials in the government. For example, Thai authorities recently banned a video from Facebook that featured the Thai King in a German shopping mall. The authorities determined that the video was demeaning to the monarch and coerced Facebook into "geo-blocking" or preventing the video from being accessed within Thailand. The use of outdated and broadly-defined legislation to censor online content is of serious concern for free speech activists in Thailand who view it as a key obstacle to open dissent.
Facebook is geoblocking this video of Thailand's King Vajiralongkorn so users in Thailand can't see it pic.twitter.com/QAE2SNr2KY— Andrew MacG Marshall (@zenjournalist) May 5, 2017
On 17th March 2017, the Thai authorities shot human rights defender, Chaiyaphum Pasae, at a security checkpoint as the young activist was entering a music venue. Thai authorities claim they were forced to shoot Pasae in self-defence after he allegedly brandished a grenade at security personnel while resisting arrest. The only other witness was immediately detained by authorities. Civil society groups have urged the Thai authorities to conduct a swift and impartial investigation into Pasae's extrajudicial killing.
Within this highly restrictive environment, civic groups continue to oppose Thailand’s military junta. A New Democracy Movement (NDM) is a collective of 20 organisations seeking a more constructive and less combative approach to promoting democracy and opposing authoritarianism in the country. NDM has also been campaigning for an investigation into Pasae's murder.
On 18th April 2017, Thailand's Prime Minister urged citizens not to protest against the disappearance of a plaque commemorating the Siamese Revolution - an event that led to the country's transition from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary system. The plaque marked the spot where young activists led the charge to establish a democracy in 1932. The missing plaque was later replaced by a similar monument in honour of the monarchy.
Since coming to power in 2014, the ruling junta has been accused of restricting civil and political freedoms. Suspicions abound over the whereabouts of the Siamese Revolution plaque and the government's intentions. In an interview with the opposition group - United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship - a member of the group stated in regards to the missing plaque:
"Past governments never thought about taking the plaque out but this government, with its extraordinary powers that are above the law, has allowed this to happen which begs the question of when and whether Thailand will truly return to democracy".