Bangkok, February 19, 2016 - The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about new visa restrictions imposed on foreign reporters in Thailand that if fully implemented could restrict coverage of the country. The new guidelines, outlined in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press statement released on Thursday, come amid reports that foreign journalists have recently been denied media visas and press card credentials for unclear reasons.
The new criteria cover foreign journalists who apply to work in Thailand for periods longer than three months, according to the statement. A vague provision in the new guidelines will give authorities new discretionary powers to deny visas to reporters whose work or behavior is deemed as "constituting any disruption to public order or to the security of the kingdom." The restriction is similar to the ruling junta's ban against any news that could "undermine social stability" or "sow political divisions" imposed on Thai news media.
Foreign reporters based in Thailand must renew their visa, work permit and press card annually, a discretionary process overseen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a May 2014 coup, ministry officials have intensified their scrutiny of foreign media visa applications, including through mandatory interviews in which reporters have been asked to state their personal opinions of the junta, monarchy and fellow foreign reporters, Bangkok-based journalists told CPJ.
Once a regional bastion of press freedom, Thailand has long served as a base for reporters covering Asia. A new requirement that media-visa-holders must work full-time for a registered news outlet and report specifically on Thailand will threaten the positions of many long-time freelance reporters and photographers and undermine the country's status as a regional media hub. The new guidelines will also make it more onerous for reporters who cover entertainment, leisure, sports, fashion, and religion to receive media visas, who may now be asked to submit unspecified "extra supporting documents."
Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials have denied any intent to restrict or reduce the number of foreign reporters based in Thailand, according to press reports. The ministry's statement said that the new revised criteria were drafted in response to the "changing nature of new media and to re-categorize personnel eligible to media visa[s]."
"These restrictive new criteria clearly aim to hollow out the foreign media and silence critical foreign reporting on Thailand's rights-curbing military regime," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "It's a crude tactic that aims to instill fear and encourage self-censorship, and, if strictly implemented, could put Thailand in league with some of the region's most closed, authoritarian societies."
According to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, at least five foreign reporters have had their visa applications denied since Prayuth's military regime took power. Other reporters have had their applications initially rejected for undisclosed reasons, then later accepted when they pressed for an official explanation for the denial, according to CPJ sources who requested anonymity due to fear of government reprisals.
In one illustrative case, authorities refused to renew the visa and press card of Stephane Peray, a French freelance cartoonist who contributes regularly to the Bangkok daily newspaper The Nation, according to press reports. Peray, whose editorial portraits are often sharply critical of Prayuth, was invited by the ministry to resubmit his application soon after the news broke about his initial rejection, reports said. The status of his reapplication was not immediately clear.