Media caught in the middle of Thai conflict

The media have become part and parcel of Thailand’s intensifying political conflict: Two privately held satellite television news stations are openly aligned with competing political street movements, and state-controlled outlets are under opposition fire for allegedly misrepresenting recent crucial news events. 

As the conflict escalates and the government reverts to crude censorship and veiled threats, all kinds of journalists here are bracing for what they fear could be an assault on their ability to neutrally gather and present the news, and a blow to press freedom.

On April 12, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency that paved the way for a crackdown on anti-government street protesters who had surrounded Government House, blockaded main roads in Bangkok and violently disrupted an Asian summit meeting outside the capital city. As part the declaration, the Thai government issued a decree that empowered officials to censor news considered a threat to national security. Authorities employed the censorship powers to block a satellite television station, three community radio stations, and more than 70 Web sites considered to be aligned with exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup. At least three pro-Thaksin community radio station operators were temporarily detained during the crackdown.

Officials justified the censorship for reasons of national security, claiming that certain media outlets had sown chaos and incited violence. The banned broadcaster, D Station, had carried live Thaksin’s video call-ins from exile and on April 8 more than 100,000 of his United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest movement’s supporters gathered in the streets of Bangkok to listen to his televised address.

That night, he called on his red shirt-wearing supporters to rise up in a “people’s revolution” against Abhisit’s government. The televised call set the stage for the April 13 military crackdown, when soldiers clashed with demonstrators wielding Molotov cocktails in a pre-dawn raid. More than 100 demonstrators were injured in the melee, many seriously; the government and military claimed nobody was killed and that soldiers only fired blanks into the crowd.   

Thaksin and UDD leaders hotly contested that official account, claiming in interviews with international media, including the BBC and CNN, that many protesters were shot, killed, and hauled away in military trucks. They claimed the local media, including state-controlled television stations, was complicit in a government cover-up of the news.

The army owns mainstream channels 5 and 7, while other government agencies own channels 3, 9, and the former Channel 11, now known as the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand. International media and wire agencies that covered the crackdown did not corroborate Thaksin’s claims in their reports.

One Bangkok-based foreign diplomat, who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity, would not entirely rule out that a few protesters may have been killed in the early morning melee, based on the Thai military’s poor human rights record. The same diplomat, however, questioned the authenticity of hazy video footage circulated by the Thaksin-aligned opposition Peua Thai party, which politicians cited as evidence that the military had killed several demonstrators. The government said after a parliamentary debate last week that it will launch an independent probe into the crackdown.

Certain prominent Bangkok-based foreign journalists sense a pro-government bias in local media coverage of recent events. Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand President Marawan Macan-Markar wrote in an April 19 news article for Inter Press Service that the censorship of D Station had “inadvertently exposed the bias that grips local media.”

“Mainstream print and broadcast media were not censored [but] they had portrayed the Democrat Party-led coalition in a positive light,” he wrote.

Abhisit lifted the state of emergency on April 24, but officials continued to block D Station. It was unclear whether the three community radio stations it raided and shuttered during the emergency were back on air. The government lifted its censorship over the 71 Thaksin-aligned Web sites it had earlier blocked, according to the Thai Netizen Network, an Internet freedom advocacy group.

Other politically aligned media are also under threat. The leader of the competing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) street movement and owner of the ASTV satellite television station, Sondhi Limthongkul, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in a pre-dawn assault on his car on April 17. Army commander General Anupong Paochinda told local media that assault rifle shells found at the crime scene were marked from the army’s 9th Infantry Division. Police are now investigating the incident.

ASTV was instrumental in broadcasting the PAD’s anti-government protests last year, which culminated in the seizure of Bangkok’s international and domestic airports and the collapse of two Thaksin-aligned governments. More recently, ASTV’s commentators had sharply criticized the military and police for failing to maintain security during UDD protests, which, in recent weeks, have twice damaged the prime minister’s motorcade.    

It’s against this chaotic backdrop that many Bangkok-based journalists fear a wider media crackdown could be coming. The signals from the government are ominous. Minister Satit Wongnongtaey in the prime minister’s office told local media last week that the government was “watching some sections of the foreign media who are in and outside of Thailand who act [as if they] serve Thaksin.”

Satit said the government had recently established a “war room” and launched a “full scale” information war to counter Thaksin’s claims carried in the foreign media. He went on to say that the government would soon identify certain foreign journalists who he alleged had backed Thaksin and damaged the country.

Foreign reporters in Thailand are required to renew their visas and work permits annually and must submit copies of their recent journalism for Foreign Ministry scrutiny and approval. But even if the government steers clear of its threat to target certain foreign journalists, it’s nonetheless clear that the media will remain uncomfortably in the middle when reporting on Thailand’s polarizing and escalating conflict.

(Reporting from Bangkok)