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Thai coup-makers controlling the message

The military has detained and warned reporters to hold fire on tough questions and critical commentary.

Last updated: 30 May 2014 08:13
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Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk poses for a photograph before reporting to the ruling military [AP]

Bangkok, Thailand - Media freedom is under the gun in Thailand a week after the military staged a coup d'etat, with reporters detained, websites blocked, and self-censorship growing.

Columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, who appears frequently on air for Al Jazeera, was summoned last week by the military administration calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

The NCPO is led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who carried out the May 22 coup saying it was necessary to end Thailand's long-running political turmoil that has badly shaken its governance and economy.

Pravit, who works for Thailand's second-largest English daily The Nation, arrived at an army office on May 25 to turn himself in. 

"I believe the Thai people will keep up the struggle for freedom and democracy ... I hope today's dictator General Prayuth is the last dictator for Thailand," Pravit told reporters outside the main gate before soldiers hustled him away. "They can detain me, but can never detain my conscience."

Calls to Pravit's mobile phone went to voice-mail and he did not respond to an email asking about his whereabouts.

Disappeared

Another reporter, Thanapol Eawsakul, turned himself on May 23 and also disappeared. Both journalists were later released unharmed after several days in detention.

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It appears mass detentions and warnings to journalists to tow the line are having an intended affect on the media in Thailand, Brad Adams of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.

"The Nation and Thai media associations have responded softly to Pravit's arrest, asking the junta to ease censorship, but also asking journalists to self-censor," said Adams. A request for comment sent to The Nation was not answered.

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, agreed that the media in Thailand was feeling pressure to hold fire on critical reporting.

"The recent arrest and temporary detention of two of Thailand's more prominent journalists will inevitably have a chilling effect across all media," Crispin said. "The new ruling junta is sending a clear and hard signal to all journalists, both local and foreign, that it will not tolerate excessive media criticism of it's heavy-handed and rights-curbing rule." 

He added the military rulers view the press as a direct challenge to their hold on power.

"The space for open political debate in Thailand has narrowed drastically since the coup, and it's not clear that the country's new military leaders will loosen their grip anytime soon," said Crispin. "They view freedom of expression as a threat to security and believe that by suppressing the press they will be able to consolidate and maintain their hold on power without substantial resistance."  

'Cheer him on'

Two local reporters covering military affairs were recently summoned by the army chief for a 45-minute meeting after grilling Prayuth about future elections and a time frame during a press conference.

Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses reporters [Reuters]

Wassana Nanuam - who reports for the English-language Bangkok Post and Suparirk Thongchairit for the Thai Rath daily - met Major-General Ponpat Wannapak, who expressed the military government leader's displeasure.  

"Such a forceful style of asking is not appropriate," the Bangkok Post quoted Ponpat  telling the journalists. "Do not ask in such a manner again, and please understand General Prayuth's good intentions in solving the country's problem. The press should cheer him on."

The army acted swiftly to control the message after the coup last week, immediately ordering radio and television stations to halt programming, and replacing it with broadcasts from the army's TV Channel 5.

Most stations are back up and running - although now with soldiers inside their offices to keep tabs - but CNN remains blocked.

Managing the message

While tackling Thailand's struggling economy and preventing violent protests have been prioritised, reining in the media has also been high on the military government's to-do list.

According to Human Rights Watch: "The military has directed print media not to publicise commentaries critical of the military’s actions. TV and radio programmes have been instructed not to invite on their programmes anyone who might make negative comments about the military or the political situation in the country. Military authorities have told journalists that failure to comply will lead to prosecution."

More than 200 websites have reportedly been blocked as threats to national security - including Human Rights Watch's Thailand site.

Prayuth has moved quickly to secure control of any opposition, rounding up dozens of politicians, scholars, as well as journalists. Many have now been released after promising to keep dissenting views to themselves.

The army's clampdown on journalism and social media will only further add to the image of the junta as repressive and retrogressive. What does the junta have to hide?

- Tyrell Haberkorn, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

Small and sporadic anti-coup demonstrations have sprouted up in recent days, but the military's stern warnings appear to have proven effective.

At an anti-coup protest at Victory Monument on May 26, soldiers ridiculed foreign reporters over loudspeakers for their coup coverage. "Please come back tomorrow, we'll be waiting for you," a soldier said as the demonstration ended.

Curbs on social media may also be on the horizon. Facebook was shut down briefly on May 28, leading to rumours that the military government was responsible. The military denied any involvement, saying it was a technical glitch.

"It is not the policy of the NCPO to close down any social media. However, specific sites which instigate hatred or disseminate false information have been asked for their cooperation in refraining from further incitement," Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told reporters at a press conference.

Some observers noted that curbing social media could cause a backlash among Thais who for the most part have accepted the coup and the generals' stated goals of getting Thailand back on track politically and economically.

Researcher Tyrell Haberkorn from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific questioned why the army is unwilling to field tough questions from journalists. 

"The army’s clampdown on journalism and social media will only further add to the image of the junta as repressive and retrogressive. What does the junta have to hide?" Haberkorn said. "And fundamentally, the clampdown on social media will not work. Users of social media, in particular, have grown savvy in their use of humour, simile, and comparison to critique the ruling order." 

Media analyst Wattanee Phoovatis told Al Jazeera's Step Vaessen that thwarting social media would be mistake by the generals. "Blocking our communication tools is possible, but if they want to do it, they must do it briefly. People now are so used to these tools that if the army blocks them, repercussions could be greater than what they are aiming to achieve."

The gatekeepers

The National Council for Peace and Order has also ordered the development of an internet "gateway" to control the dissemination of online content.

                 Thai army tightens grip on media

 

"We want the national gateway to be a more effective tool than the current mechanism for regulating internet use," Surachai Srisarakam from the Information and Communication Technology Ministry was quoted as saying.

While many journalists and scholars have shied away from responding to the military's moves, others have spoken out against the crackdown. Student activists - who have historically played a leading role in the fight for democracy in Thailand - gathered on May 29 at Thammasat University to denounce restrictions.

"The NCPO controls the media, forcing them to present to the public what is beneficial to the NCPO," the Thai Student Centre for Democracy said in a statement. "This ... is an abuse of media freedom."

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand has also issued a statement challenging the new rules of the game, while adding that the show must go on. "While this may impede coverage in the short term - and make it harder for journalists on the ground to produce accurate, balanced reports - it will not diminish interest in this story or make it go away."

The Bangkok Post also took to task the military government's clampdown on freedom of the press in an editorial, warning such restrictions could backfire on the generals.

"As it always has, suppression of free speech and communication only drives more critics to seek each other out," it said. "Freedom of speech and the press are highly prized values in our country. A regime that imposes the least censorship will gather the most Facebook likes."

This story was amended to reflect the release of Pravit Rojanaphruk and Thanapol Eawsakul.

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Al Jazeera
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