Thai Press Groups Push Back against Govt ‘Crack Down’ on Journalists

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2021-07-28
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Thai Press Groups Push Back against Govt ‘Crack Down’ on Journalists Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha sprays hand sanitizer at journalists in an effort to avoid questions during a news conference in Bangkok, March 9, 2021.
[Royal Thai Government handout via AFP]

Six leading Thai professional media associations, in a joint statement Wednesday, condemned what they said was an official assault on the public’s right to accurate information as well as free speech during a pandemic.

The associations urged journalists to call on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to stop threatening to sue news organizations that disseminate what he described as fake or distorted reports about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We call upon all professionals in the media and news agencies to stand in unison and oppose the government’s new measures,” the groups said.

They were responding to a Facebook post on Tuesday in which Prayuth ordered agencies to prosecute journalists, celebrities and social-media administrators suspected of spreading fake news.

“[R]ecent attempts by [the Thai PM’s] government to intimidate and take legal action against members of the public, who simply exercise their constitutional rights to criticize the administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, clearly reveal an intent to crack down on the freedom of expression enjoyed by the media and the public,” the associations said.

The statement was signed by The National Press Council of Thailand, The News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, The Thai Journalists Association, The Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, The Society for Online News Providers and The National Union of Journalists.

In his post, Prayuth claimed there had been widespread dissemination of false information or distortions of officials’ quotes by traditional and social media users, leading to public misunderstanding.

“The Digital Economy and Society Ministry, the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division and the national police bureau must take measures to promptly and attentively prosecute major disseminators – be [they] the media, celebs or Facebook page administrators – not small users,” he said on Facebook.

Since a spike in COVID-19 cases started in April, activists, doctors, celebrities and citizens on social media have criticized the government’s vaccine procurement plan.

They have said the government had mishandled the pandemic and had also been overly dependent on the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine and British-Swedish drug maker Astra-Zeneca’s jabs, which are being produced by Siam Bioscience, a local company owned by the king.

The media associations said Prayuth’s comments show the government’s “refusal to acknowledge the administration’s failure in its communications with the public.”

They called on all media professionals to “stand in unison and oppose the government’s new measures,” while taking care to make sure their news coverage is “accurate and compliant with the highest journalistic standards.”

Such efforts would “deny the government any excuse to interfere with media operations, which will in turn affect the public’s right to information.”

On Wednesday, Thailand again reported record new daily infections from COVID-19 – 16,533 cases this time – bringing the country's total caseload to 543,361. With 133 new virus-related deaths, total pandemic fatalities rose to close to 4,400.

‘True and false information’

Since March 2020, Prayuth has invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations to streamline his administration’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and also control traditional and social media, said Werayuth Theerakamol, a doctoral candidate in communication and media studies at Loughborough University in England.

Werayuth said some information coming from the government had proven troublesome.

“The government gave both true and false information. The orders and policies from various government agencies are inconsistent, causing public confusion,” he told BenarNews.

“When problems arose, it blamed the media, but those were not all the media’s fault.”

In May, television station Thai PBS offered a public apology after its assistant editor published a photo on her Facebook page of another woman who she said suffered side effects from the Sinovac vaccine.

The apology came after Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn filed a complaint with police.

Also that month, Chaiwut shut down 18 social media accounts, and a month later, asked court to authorize the closure of another eight Facebook accounts, including of prominent anti-government academics and writers.

The Computer Crimes Act and the emergency decree carry jail terms of up to five years and up to two years, respectively. Those guilty under act and decree could also be fined up to U.S. $3,000, and up to $1,200, respectively.

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.

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