Fallout from the September 2006 military coup cast a chill over Thailand’s media throughout 2007, as the junta maintained martial law over nearly half the country’s provinces and used its discretionary powers to censor broadcast news, seize control of the country’s only privately run television station, and pass new legislation that severely curtailed free expression on the Internet.
Voters in an August national referendum adopted a new constitution that in letter and spirit upheld, and even extended, some of the press freedom guarantees enshrined in the progressive 1997 charter. The provisions included a ban on politicians’ owning media outlets and a renewed legal commitment to strengthen public broadcasting. At the same time, however, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly passed new laws that effectively sustained the government’s powers to curb free expression and press freedom for ill-defined reasons of national security.
A new Computer Crime Act, enacted on July 18, included some of the most restrictive and potentially punitive measures for governing the Internet anywhere in the world, including possible prison terms for people who use proxy servers to access government-restricted material.
The legislation gave Thai authorities broad discretionary powers to filter content deemed threatening to national security or insulting to the monarchy. Before the legislation was passed, the military-appointed Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Ministry had moved on dubious legal authority to block several politically oriented Web sites.
That included the May 27 blocking of two Web sites—Hi-thaksin and Saturdayvoice—that reported favorably on exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and posted critical commentary on the ruling Council for National Security (CNS) junta. Access to both sites was barred after they posted an interview the ex-premier gave to several local community radio stations in mid-May.
On April 3, the ICT Ministry blocked access to popular video-sharing Web site YouTube in response to an unknown contributor who, using the pseudonym “Paddidda,” uploaded clips lampooning King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Internet users in Thailand who tried to log on to YouTube received an “access denied” message written in Thai and administered by the ministry. Thai officials said the postings violated the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws, which bar any media criticism of the Thai royal family and carry possible 15-year jail terms. Rather than filtering only the perceived objectionable content, Thai authorities censored the entire site.
The government lifted the ban on August 30 after reaching an agreement with YouTube’s owner, Google, to block any video clips considered offensive to Thai citizens or in violation of Thai law. ICT Minister Sittichai Pookaiyaudom told the local press that YouTube had created a program to bar sensitive video clips from being accessed by Thai Internet service providers.
Another worrying development came on August 24, when a blogger and a Web administrator were arrested under Article 14 of the new Computer Crime Act, which broadly restricts the posting online of “forged” or “false” information that impinges on national security. Both were released on bail after spending several days in detention. State prosecutors, for unknown reasons, failed to press formal charges by an October 12 deadline.
The CNS also maintained hard curbs on the broadcast media. After launching its September 2006 coup, the military positioned tanks and troops at the country’s six main television stations, which were initially barred from airing news that portrayed the former premier or criticized the military. In early January 2007, the CNS summoned senior Thai broadcast representatives and urged them not to broadcast comments made by Thaksin, his lawyer, or his former political party members.
On January 15, military officials instructed local cable television provider United Broadcasting Corporation to block domestic broadcasts of an interview that U.S.-based CNN conducted with Thaksin in Hong Kong. The interview was replaced with a rerun of a sports program; scheduled rebroadcasts were replaced with still images of Hollywood movie stars.
In March, the government-run Public Relations Department (PRD) took control of iTV, the country’s only privately owned and managed television news station. The CNS claimed that Thaksin’s government had illegally amended its original 30-year operating concession with the prime minister’s office and as a result owed more than 100 billion baht (US$3.2 billion) in fines, unpaid broadcasting license fees, and overdue interest payments. Prime Minister’s Office Minister Khunying Dhipavadee Meksawan had said the station would be shuttered on March 6, but backtracked in the face of protests and kept the station running, using government funds, under the new name Thailand Independent Television.
The seizure put under direct government control all six of Thailand’s main television broadcasters, including one channel directly managed by the army. Attempts to break the government’s monopoly through the use of new technologies were firmly rebuffed by authorities. A group of former government officials and journalists on March 1 attempted to launch a pro-Thaksin news station, People’s Television (PTV), via satellite. The state-run Communications Authority of Thailand and the Telephone Organization of Thailand, which together control the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, declined to give PTV the Internet access it needed to launch. (PTV needed to connect to an uplink station in Hong Kong, where its signal could be beamed to Thai customers with satellite dishes.) To bypass the state agencies, PTV joined with Star Channel MV1, one of 18 satellite broadcasters in the country. But authorities blocked its maiden broadcast on March 18—just hours after the station aired its first news reports.
PTV co-founder Jakrapob Penkair, a former government spokesman and veteran broadcast journalist, told CPJ that plainclothes police officers frequently followed him and other senior PTV executives when they left their studios, which were situated on the top floor of a shopping mall. He said the station hired private security guards to oversee staff members’ automobiles after unknown people were observed apparently conducting surveillance.
In May, CPJ issued an investigative report, “Thailand at a Crossroads,” that found the CNS maintaining sharp curbs on privately run provincial radio stations several months after the initial coup. A number of station managers who spoke with CPJ said that PRD officials had continued to enforce blanket restrictions on news reporting, including strict bans on any news portraying Thaksin in a favorable light, and orders to broadcast government-prepared news three times per day.
On May 16, government authorities raided and closed three different community radio stations—Taxi Driver Community Radio FM 92.75, Confidante Radio FM 87.75, and the Internet-based station run by the opposition group Saturday Voice Against Dictatorship—after they each had broadcast an interview with Thaksin, who spoke from London. PRD head Pramoj Rathavinij said the following day that the three stations had been shut down for national security reasons and for operating without licenses. All three were later allowed to resume broadcasting while their appeals were pending.
There were no reports of direct government censorship or harassment of the local print media, which regularly published critical reports about the CNS and their appointed interim government. However, several mysterious bomb threats and attacks signaled that print publications were not necessarily immune to the unresolved political conflict between the military and Thaksin’s supporters.
The Nation Group, which publishes several Thai- and English-language newspapers, was forced to evacuate its Bangkok offices in early January after receiving an anonymous bomb threat by telephone. The threat came soon after a string of unclaimed bombs killed three and injured 40 on New Year’s Eve 2006 in Bangkok. Later in January, a small grenade exploded in the office compound of the Thai-language Daily News. Nobody was injured in the blast, and no group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Some print journalists were heartened by the August 30 passage of a new Printing Act, which effectively repealed decades-old legislation that allowed police officials to censor publications for reasons of national security. The new legislation scrapped the draconian 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, which local journalists and press freedom advocates had long campaigned to abolish.
Still, the government continued to closely monitor foreign media coverage, particularly in relation to any reports that referred to the monarchy and any analysis that touched on the institution’s possible involvement in the coup. Foreign Affairs Ministry officials called individual reporters throughout the year to remind them to avoid discussion of the monarchy in their political reporting, CPJ sources said. The CNS sent letters to several accredited foreign correspondents detailing the military’s official explanation of the coup and a return letter the correspondents were supposed to sign to indicate they had read the document.