Free Press Can Help Heal Thailand’s Divisions: Awardee

Uayporn Satitpanyapan and Kate Beddall
171115-TH-pravit-620.jpg Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk shows his ink-stained hands after being fingerprinted at the Royal Thai Police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, Aug. 8, 2017.
Courtesy Pravit Rojanaphruk

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk says he cannot accept Thailand’s military government as legitimate, even though he is facing charges of sedition for criticizing the junta.

The 50-year-old former columnist for Thailand’s Nation newspaper is facing two potential criminal cases under anti-sedition and computer-crimes laws. In 2014 and 2015, Thai authorities twice summoned him for so-called “attitude adjustment” detention sessions for posting critical content on Facebook.

Thailand needs a free press to heal deep societal divisions, Pravit told BenarNews in an interview from New York, where he was to receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“The only way [forward] is to try to be open-minded and understand those who think differently from you … and you can’t do that if you don’t have freedom of the press, or freedom of expression, or the tolerance for different political opinions,” he said.

On Tuesday, Freedom House, another U.S.-based press watchdog, rated Thailand poorly for Internet freedom, noting this had declined to its lowest level in 2017 since the military seized power in a coup three years ago.

“Not true, Thailand is a very open country…,” Prinya Hom-anek, a member of a parliamentary working committee on computer crimes, told BenarNews, reacting to the report.

“Freedom is not limited and the laws are not ineffective, as stated in the report. If it is that severely restricted, then more people could have been jailed,” Prinya said.

Pravit spoke to BenarNews earlier this week.

BenarNews: You wrote in 2015 that people should not accept military rule as normal. Now it’s the end of 2017. Has Thailand accepted it as normal?

Pravit: Thai society is deeply divided. … There are people who vehemently support the military regime for the very reason that they believe the military regime is the lesser of two evils compared to the Yingluck/Thaksin Shinawatra administration. At the same time you get people who are apolitical.

But myself, as a journalist, I cannot just treat this military regime as another legitimate or normal government. … [If] we allow them to normalize the situation, we would only end up inviting more military coups in the future … this is not about hatred against any single individual in the military regime. This is a matter of principle.

BN: How can Thailand heal its divisions?

Pravit: Thailand’s society is so deeply divided today. People just hate one another for the very simple fact that they have a different political belief. The only way [forward] is to try to be open-minded and understand those who think differently from you. …

And you can’t do that if you don’t have freedom of the press, or freedom of expression, or the tolerance for different political opinions. … I think Thai society will have to learn to live with people who think differently, to learn to tolerate freedom of speech, freedom of expression, press freedom, because these are the basic fundamentals of a free and dignified society.

BN: What is the latest on the two cases against you?

Pravit: The cases are still with the police as we speak. …The cyber police, the technology crime suppression division, is handling it. We expect them to make a decision within the next month or two. If they forward it to the prosecutor, the prosecutor will take a while to consider the case. …

Formally, they have told me that this has nothing to do with the military regime, although unofficially, when I reported to the police, they also mentioned that this has to do with the fact that I could not stop criticizing the military regime.

BN: What will your defense strategy be?

Pravit: My strategy is pretty simple. We will fight the charges as publically as possible … I’m not fighting quietly. I’m maximizing this travail or experience as a learning opportunity to alert the public about the curb on press freedom and freedom of expression in the Kingdom.

BN: Besides summoning you for attitude adjustment and charging you with sedition, how has the military government affected your life and work?

Pravit: In May 2016, I was prevented from traveling to Helsinki to attend the World Press Freedom Day. … To be fair to them, they have since lifted the ban. … I did not have to seek their permission to travel to New York.

But having said that, because the military regime holds absolute power and we are being ruled not under a rule of law but under a rule by law, I think they could feel free to change things whenever they like. It’s an arbitrary system of justice and governance that we are under. And this is really unpredictable, and it affects you.

BN: Would press freedom still be under threat if Thailand had a civilian government?

Pravit: Absolutely, though perhaps in a less direct way. ... I have no illusions, even under Yingluck or Thaksin Shinawatra administration, there has been a trend to either co-opt or neutralize the press. … We just have to learn to teach or to enable politicians to accept greater scrutiny. Elections alone don’t guarantee respect for press freedom …

BN: Twenty-five years ago, Thailand had the freest press in Southeast Asia. How does media freedom in Thailand compare with other countries in the region now?

Pravit: [A]s you have mentioned, Thailand used to be on top, at least in Southeast Asia, when it comes to press freedom. Now we have fallen behind, due to two successive coups.

But I see lots of things that the Thai press, even those who may disagree with me, take some pride in the freedom and independence they have achieved over the past two and a half decades. And this is not something that could be taken away easily by the military regime today.

Even though we are facing repression, the situation is still far better than during the 1960s and ’50s, under the Cold War, dictators at that time would just haul journalists to prison and let them languish in jail for years. That’s no longer a possibility. … I still have some hope that, in the long run, we will persevere, we will emerge victorious.

BN: Recently, the Thai royal palace issued a statement about the expulsion of a senior palace aide, Disthorn Vajarodaya. As a journalist working inside Thailand, what can you do with a statement like that? What can you not do?

Pravit: There’s a huge pressure to censor oneself when it comes to anything mildly critical of the monarchy. This is a struggle that preceded the coup in 2014. ... The least one could do to even the situation is to say that there exists not just censorship but self-censorship.

So for example, at Khaosod English where I work, there are stories where we would sometimes [remind] the readers that we have to self-censor ourselves due to the Lese-Majeste law. … I see that as a step forward, a growing acknowledgement by at least a minority of the Thai press to inform the public and remind them, that we are not free.

Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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