Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s vision of the media speaks volumes about their plight: Journalists should “play a major role in supporting the government's affairs”, he said.
Like Thai society itself, the media landscape is very polarised. On the one hand, the mainstream media, such as the daily Thai Rath, toe the government line. On the other hand, lower profile media try to provide an alternative point of view and, because of this, they are faced with harassment by the authorities. Such is the case with Voice TV, which was founded by an opposition leader and which is regularly threatened with suspension. It applies even more to online media such as Prachatai and The Reporters, which must wage a constant battle to keep providing reliable news and information.
The long-promised elections held in March 2019 made no difference regarding the total control of the media wielded by the elite surrounding Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the army general responsible for the 2014 coup, who is now prime minister, defence minister and chief of the Royal Thai Police. The “general-prime minister” takes to the radio and TV airwaves every Friday evening to promote his views.
The possibility of a lèse-majesté charge, which is very broadly defined in article 112 of Thailand’s penal code and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, is a permanent threat hanging over every media outlet. Defamation and cybercrime laws are also systematically used to harass journalists, who – if prosecuted – are forced to incur exorbitant legal fees. The government has also imposed a “code of conduct” under which it can suspend the licences of media outlets that threaten “public decency”.
Although apparently independent of the government, Thailand’s leading media outlets are owned by a handful of oligarchs with direct links to the royal family, the armed forces and the ubiquitous General Prayut. Conversely, the pro-opposition media were created with funding from businessmen close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in self-imposed exile. The development of new methods of participatory financing is enabling the emergence of new websites that are less subject to the control of their funders.
The message is clear: either journalists censor themselves carefully or they expose themselves to charges of undermining “national security” or “peace and order”, which can lead directly to imprisonment. The climate of widespread fear is palpable during the frequent waves of pro-democracy street protests: The media that support the ruling elite don’t mention them at all, while journalists with alternative media weigh each term used in their reporting very carefully to avoid being jailed.
In Thailand, journalists need to be aware that any criticism of the government could cause a draconian response made possible by a judicial system that does the government’s bidding. Since the 2014 coup, dozens of journalists and bloggers have been forced to choose between imprisonment and self-imposed exile. Those convicted of lèse-majesté are systematically mistreated in prison. In the meantime, the police are quick to use their batons: Several journalists were badly injured by the police while trying to cover protests in November 2022.