Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at a press conference in Bangkok in 2015. He says the new media guidelines will curb 'misleading' coverage. (Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom)
Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at a press conference in Bangkok in 2015. He says the new media guidelines will curb 'misleading' coverage. (Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom)

Thailand aims to hollow out foreign press with new visa restrictions

Senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin this week presented CPJ’s concerns about new media visa restrictions for foreign reporters based in Thailand to a group of Bangkok-based ambassadors. The controversial measures, announced last month by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are scheduled to come into force on March 21. The text of Crispin’s speech follows:

Your Excellencies,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak before this distinguished audience. I currently serve as Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based, non-partisan independent organization that, through monitoring, research and advocacy, promotes press freedom worldwide. I’ve covered press freedom developments for the entire Southeast Asia region, including Thailand, for the past decade.

CPJ has expressed consistent concerns about the steady erosion of press and Internet freedoms in Thailand since the 2014 military coup and suspension of democracy. Throughout my 17 years of journalistic experience based in Thailand, the situation for reporters, apart from when bullets are flying in the national capital during political protests, has never been more dire. Reporters operate in a climate of fear and uncertainty, never sure exactly where the line between permissible and off-limits reporting lies. Local journalists who have crossed that vague line have suffered increasingly harsh reprisals, including so-called “attitude adjustment” sessions in military custody.

Until now, foreign reporters have been mostly immune to that persecution. But new restrictive guidelines for receiving and renewing foreign media work visas, in our estimation, aim ultimately to instill the same self-censorship practiced among local journalists in the foreign media through the arbitrary threat of visa denials. If strictly enforced as written, the guidelines will inevitably hollow out Thailand’s now robust foreign press corps and further curb critical news coverage of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s rights-curbing junta.

The measures, including provisions that require reporters to work full-time for a registered news organization, will effectively make it illegal to work as a freelancer from Thailand. Equally worrying, the guidelines give authorities the power to deny visa applications in punitive response to any news they deem as “disruptive” to public order or security. How officials will measure or determine what constitutes a “disruption” is unclear. Those accused of “disruptions” will apparently not be able to challenge arbitrary or vindictive decisions in the Administrative Court system without work visa status, a no doubt by-design Catch-22 situation.

Depending how that particular security-related guideline is interpreted and implemented, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have broad new discretionary powers to deny media visas on the basis of an individual journalist’s news coverage. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs originally 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 visas”, and not designed to restrict or reduce the number of foreign journalists in Thailand.

If Thailand truly wanted to get in step with the changing nature of global media, it would implement measures that aimed to promote and protect freelancers, not restrict them. Faced with broken business models and ever tightening news budgets, a growing number of the world’s major news organizations rely on freelancers for their coverage of outpost countries like Thailand. The willful elimination of freelancers will effectively pull the plug on a vast amount of diverse and original reporting on Thailand. That, in turn, will give the government more leverage on news organizations with established bureaus and full-time correspondents, as we’ve witnessed in other countries that restrict freelancers, such as China and Vietnam.

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai was later more forthright about the guideline policy’s true intent, which he said in press interviews would be used to curb “misleading” foreign coverage about Thailand. It seems increasingly clear that the junta has handed down to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a “quota of elimination” for foreign reporters, judging by Don’s comments to local media that his ministry plans to reject some 10 percent of the 500 or so currently credentialed foreign correspondents in the country. There are indications that officials are already conducting investigations into individual reporters’ backgrounds before they’ve applied for renewals.

If all of the five new guidelines are strictly enforced, including the requirement that journalists must work full-time for a registered news organization, the eventual number of visa denials will be much, much higher. At a time when Thailand aims to become a regional hub, the economic and logistical center of the new ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] Economic Community, it is simultaneously moving to roll back the country’s long-held position as press freedom safe haven for reporters covering the wider region.

The timing of these new restrictions, by our estimation, is no accident. Foreign reporters have broken a series of exposé stories that the local media either missed, ignored or lacked the resources to pursue, that have cast Thailand in an often unfavorable light. That reporting has often put Prayuth’s junta on the back foot at a time it tries to win international recognition of its rule. Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting on the Rohingya boat people’s plight and Thailand’s shameful role in the abusive human trafficking racket.

The Associated Press has exposed slavery and other unsavory practices in the fishing industry that have long been the norm in a country that does brisk trade with members of your union. The Economist has reported on palace intrigue ahead of a crucial royal succession in a manner that the local press would never dare for fear of reprisals, including possible jail terms. It is likely no coincidence that the junta is intensifying pressure on the foreign press ahead of a delicate royal transition that could be complicated by critical news coverage.

All of this groundbreaking, investigative foreign reporting is in the public interest and fair game in any democratic society where the press is allowed to serve its checking and balancing role. And it’s the type of reporting, I venture, that Prayuth’s junta deliberately aims to curb through these arbitrary and vague new guidelines against the foreign press. While the government insists it’s working to reform and improve Thailand’s democracy, uprooting a diverse and robust foreign media presence in the country is inconsistent with that supposed aim.

Allow me to take this opportunity to advocate that you, either collectively or through your individual embassies, speak publicly or lobby privately against these new guidelines against the foreign media as well as continued restrictions and pressure on the local media. Thank you for your attention.