Thailand at a Crossroads: CPJ Special Report

After a military coup, community radio stations bear the brunt of official repression.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand
Posted May 15, 2007   

When news spread on September 19, 2006, that a military coup had overthrown Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s elected government, Thardsak Jimekitwattana replaced his local radio station’s news programs with pop music.

The 40-year-old station director had good reason to reformat: Before the coup, Radio Wihok 89.15 FM frequently aired news that favored the ousted prime minister, who had strong popular support across Thailand’s northern provinces, including in his hometown of Chiang Mai.  

The next day, 10 soldiers entered Radio Wihok’s offices, pointed M-16 assault rifles at Thardsak and his staff, and demanded he report to military headquarters for a private discussion, according to Thardsak and an office assistant. The military authorities had picked a high-profile target for harassment: Thardsak is a leader of the Thai Journalists Association’s northern branch and was for nearly two decades a print journalist at some of the country’s best known Thai-language newspapers.

“They thought in the past my station cheered Thaksin, so I was ordered to change or close down,” Thardsak said from his station, situated along a back alley in Chiang Mai. “I’m proud they thought my station was so important. They obviously knew we were close to the people.”

Thailand’s broadcast media, from which an estimated 80 percent of the population receives its news, has been particularly hard hit by last year’s military intervention. Radio Wihok was one of more than 1,000 community and local radio stations that had recently begun operations across the country’s northern regions. All received strict new marching orders from the ruling Council for National Security (CNS) immediately following the coup. In order to stay on the air, stations had to stop reporting news that mentioned Thaksin and halt all call-in programs. They also had to broadcast military-prepared news three times a day, as well as the national anthem twice a day.

The night of the coup, the military pulled the plug on one private and five state-run television stations and replaced their programming with images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s long-reigning monarch. Soldiers and tanks were deployed in front of certain television offices for weeks after the bloodless putsch.

Military censors have since moved to block television news footage of the former prime minister, including stock images and interviews aired globally by international broadcasters such as CNN and BBC. More recently, the junta nationalized Thailand’s only privately run television station, iTV, after it said the station owed the staggering sum of 100 billion baht (US$3.1 billion) in unpaid broadcasting license fees and fines. The station was established specifically to guard against a repeat of the military-led news blackout in 1992 that kept millions of Thais in the dark when soldiers opened fire and killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok.  

With critical television news already dampened, the junta’s blanket curbs on thousands of local and community radio stations reflect the next major threat to press freedom in Thailand. Many media reform advocates fear the military will choose to focus on cases such as Chiang Mai’s FM 92.5 as it drafts new media laws, tentatively scheduled for a national referendum in October.  

FM 92.5, which operates out of a dingy fourth-floor hotel room in central Chiang Mai, previously aired programs strongly in support of Thaksin and his grassroots policies. The CNS believed the station’s pro-Thaksin bent could represent a threat to national security; the day after the coup, soldiers entered its small office and arrested Manager Mahawan Kawang. He was told the station could remain on the air only if his programs never mentioned the ousted premier by name. According to Mahawan, authorities now closely monitor his programs and sometimes call to instruct him to “tone down” the political nature of his broadcasts, including his commentary in mid-March criticizing the current constitution-drafting process.

“They have the guns, they have the power, so we can’t speak freely anymore,” said Mahawan, who told CPJ that if censorship of community radio stations continues, he may close down FM 92.5 and return to working a plot of land he owns on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

Mahawan’s fiery talk programs reportedly resulted in attacks on opposition Democrat Party leaders during a campaign swing through Chiang Mai in the run-up to the 2005 general elections, though he denies the charges. “This isn’t democracy–and I have a democratic heart,” he said, lamenting Thaksin’s overthrow.

Thailand’s progressive 1997 constitution included measures that not only guaranteed press freedom but also aimed to break the government’s monopoly on national radio and television frequencies. Section 40 of the 1997 charter mandated that 25 percent of the national radio airwaves must be transferred to private hands, including community radio stations.

Still, the armed forces control and collect lucrative concession fees from all private news operators who rent television and radio frequencies on renewable one- or two-year contracts. The short-term nature of those contracts has allowed the military to play a behind-the-scenes censorship role over the broadcast media–a power they frequently exercised during Thailand’s transition from military to democratic rule in the 1990s and throughout Thaksin’s soft authoritarian tenure.  

Since 2000, thousands of new community radio stations have mushroomed across Thailand’s countryside and in its provincial towns. They often filled important news gaps left by the nationally oriented broadcast media, including local coverage of natural disasters, public health, and agriculture–especially in remote areas, where local newspapers are not circulated and Thai language literacy rates are low among ethnic minority groups.

According to Panaporn Phaibunwatanakit, a regional director for the press freedom advocacy group Campaign for Popular Media Reform, villagers were able to establish their own stations with investments of as little as 40,000 baht (US$1,250). “Many of these stations were born of communities that had grievances with the government,” she said. “They were bringing rural communities together in a new, powerful way.”

At the same time, local politicians, many of them affiliated with Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, received government funding to launch their own community radio stations as a means of casting favorable light on the ruling party’s various populist policies. Rather than distinguish politically neutral from politically charged stations, the military has now issued blanket restrictions that have hindered many community radio stations’ ability to broadcast news, according to Panaporn.    

The offices of Radio Neu Keun FM 90.75 are in the rural outskirts of the provincial town of Hot, approximately 62 miles (100 kilometers) from Chiang Mai. Established by a group of ethnic Karen villagers in 2002 to provide programs aimed at protecting the minority tribe’s unique culture–which includes distinctive dress, language, music, and customs–the station broadcasts to roughly 30 nearby villages.

When Hot and its outlying areas were inundated by floods for months last year, Neu Keun aired crucial around-the-clock emergency response messages to local communities, where thousands had abandoned their homes for makeshift structures on higher ground.

“We let people know when the water would be up, and when it would be down; which roads were usable, and which were washed out,” said Boonchan Chanmot, the station’s manager and a full-time elementary school teacher. “Many have since told us they wouldn’t have survived without our news.”  

Even with a strong public service track record, Neu Keun’s ability to broadcast local news has been severely curtailed since the coup. The station was closed for three weeks after the takeover. As a condition for reopening, military officials demanded that all news broadcasts be translated from the Karen language into Thai, and that they be vetted by the prime minister’s public relations department.

Because Neu Keun is run by volunteers, many of whom don’t read or write Thai, the station has curbed news programming and aired more music since the coup, according to Boonchan. “We’ve never broadcast critical news, only news that’s useful to the local community,” he said. “They thought if it’s in a language they don’t know, it’s a risk and we might be criticizing them. Now we’re even scared to air music that they might misunderstand as critical.”

Other community radio stations that broadcast solely in Thai also feel pressure to self-censor the news. “We’re scared that if we say something they don’t like, we’ll be closed,” said Udom Waraha, senior news manager at Kamphaeng Phet Community Radio. “Previously, we aired a diversity of views: some were for the government, some were against. Now everything must be for [the government], without criticism. There’s not as much freedom.”

Not that long ago, in the early 1990s–when democracy seemed to be on a march across much of Southeast Asia–Thailand’s freewheeling print and emerging broadcast media were viewed as regional models of press freedom. Hard-hitting Thai newspaper reports were pivotal in turning public sentiment against the previous military dictatorship, resulting in the fateful 1992 street demonstrations that eventually led to democratic reform.  

With that track record, Thailand’s news media came under immense pressure to censor itself during Thaksin’s five-year tenure. Journalists and editors who refused to toe the official line often faced intimidation, and occasionally, punitive criminal and civil defamation charges: A series of complaints filed by the prime minister himself, against media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul, sought a total of 2 billion baht (US$60.6 million) in damages. Sondhi had led massive street protests against the Thaksin government.       

Paradoxically, many Thai journalists had hoped that the 2006 coup would result in a freer media environment. The country’s print media have been largely unaffected by restrictions, judging by the increasingly critical reports about the interim government’s lackluster performance. Yet the broadcast media appear more constrained under the CNS than they were under Thaksin. Since nearly all of the rural population receives its news through broadcast media, authorities are worried about lingering pro-Thaksin sentiment and the potential for destabilizing public protests.

Sondhi told CPJ that his news talk show, broadcast on state-controlled Channel 11, was knocked off the air in February soon after he criticized the central bank’s financial policies. “When it comes to critical television news, [the CNS] doesn’t want to hear it any more than Thaksin did,” Sondhi said.  

Last October, a senior military officer threatened to shut down iTV after the station’s editors aired a report about a Bangkok taxi driver who committed suicide in protest against the coup, according to an iTV employee. In March, the government rescinded the station’s operating concession, and it is now managed and financed by the prime minister’s office.  

Current Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander, told members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in November that his interim government was committed to upholding press freedom, and that it would not adopt the same “carrot and stick” approach to media management as Thaksin’s government had used. 

Former journalist Chavarong Limpattamapanee, who joined Surayud’s Political Development Council, said the new draft constitution will include press freedom guarantees “more liberal” than those included in the abolished 1997 charter. In particular, he said, a new clause will bar politicians and public officials from suing journalists if the report in question relates to their public duties and activities.  

Yet the glaring contradiction between the junta’s words and its actions has many media reform activists on edge, particularly in relation to the future status of the country’s community radio stations. Because so many grassroots stations that previously supported Thaksin’s government felt free to challenge the central authorities over assorted local governance issues, many activists fear the current restrictions on community stations could be institutionalized as part of the new constitution.  

“Thailand is heading toward a landmark moment,” said Jiraporn Witayasakpan, a professor of mass communications at Chiang Mai University. “The 1997 constitution was the first in Thai history to give the people the right to national broadcast frequencies. But with all the fears of conflict and agitation, we fear the military government has a very different set of reform goals.”

Shawn W. Crispin is a Bangkok-based journalist and consultant to CPJ’s Asia program.