Press freedom slumps again

Press freedom slumps again

Reporters Without Borders has released its annual ranking and report on the state of press freedom everywhere. RSF (Reporters Sans Frontieres) notes the media is under official attack by governments on every continent. But Thailand is singled out for yet another drop in the RSF press-freedom rankings, from an abysmal No.136 last year to a truly shameful 142nd place in the world.

The way RSF sees it, the Thai media is not as free as the Pakistan press. North Korea has the least-free media, no surprise there, and Norway is No.1 -- debatable but defensible. Here's the hurtful part. Look at countries with more press freedom than Thailand within our region. They are Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia. Thailand is supposed to have better press freedom than these neighbours.

But wait, it gets worse. The junta's National Reform Steering Assembly is to push a proposal next week by its "media reform" subcommittee. If adopted over almost unanimous opposition, a new media council with heavy government-military representation will oversee all Thai media. The law would require every journalist to obtain a licence, a mandate that no other regional or free country ever has considered. That would cause next year's international press freedom report to list Thailand at or near North Korea.

The RSF report has been criticised as too harsh, and it uses very strong language. This year's version refers to junta chief and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as a "press freedom predator". That rudeness is premature. This week, Gen Prayut indicated he will oppose the new media-reform proposal. Nevertheless, press freedom ratings for Thailand have worsened each year of the coup regime.

In addition to RSF, the annual Freedom House report on world press freedom slags off Thailand. The 2017 report is still pending, but last year the think tank was adamant and straight-shooting about the state of the media here, and summed it up in two words: "Not free". It dropped Thailand two positions to No.171 of 202 countries.

Every recent report on Thai press freedom blames two key factors. First is the 2014 military coup. "Any criticism of the junta is liable to lead to reprisals," noted RSF on Thursday. "The NCPO regime has ... banned criticism of its rule, and harassed, attacked, and shut down media outlets," said Freedom House.

The second and more controversial issue that costs Thailand huge criticism around the world is the enforcement of Section 112 of the Criminal Code. "Since the 2014 coup, there has been a sharp increase in lese majeste cases", Freedom House noted. This was echoed in this week's report. RSF calls Section 112 "a weapon of mass deterrence for journalists, bloggers, and online activists".

Such press freedom reports are subject to criticism, of course. Rankings are arbitrary, and there always has been suspicion that politics plays more of a role than objectivity. In recent years, Scandinavian media have dominated. In order they are Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, along with the Netherlands. These countries actively discourage reporting on terrorism and race relations. Similarly, placing Britain at No.40 and the United States three places below that may seem strange to many.

Freedom of the press is the most important part of freedom of speech. Attacks on the press are direct assaults on the freedom supposedly guaranteed by the constitution. The government must work harder to encourage press freedom. One result would be a more positive view that would no longer cause loss of face abroad for the government.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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