Covid no excuse for media curbs

Covid no excuse for media curbs

The year 2021 will be remembered as a pivotal moment for the Thai media as it faced challenges from Big Brother-esque controls exerted by the government.

Even before the pandemic, the media faced structural limitations in reporting on political issues especially on monarchy reform.

The government has exerted control by using Section 112 of the Criminal Code to deter even healthy criticism on this sensitive issue. Without healthy press freedom, a democratic society always will suffer.

Facing criticism for policy flip-flops and amid growing public discontent, the government decided to control press freedom by various tactics.

The Thai Journalists Association (TJA) assessment of the media, issued on Dec 28, highlights "ongoing attempts by the government to restrict freedom of the press" as a major challenge of the year.

The country spent last year living under an emergency decree and the Prayut Chan-o-cha government showed no hesitation about using the decree to control information about Covid.

In August, when Covid cases peaked, the government tightened its grip on the media by issuing an announcement prohibiting the media from reporting or publishing any information that might "cause panic".

The TJA said the demand, known as Announcement 29, was a "blatant violation of freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution, and prompted an intense backlash from the media and civil society.

"Six media associations opposed the move in unison, while a group of reporters filed a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court against the order. Facing such stiff opposition, the prime minister eventually withdrew the order."

Meanwhile, the government clings to its own Trumpian narrative that the press itself is the real barrier to "returning happiness to the people" with its dour assessments of ineptitude in officialdom.

"Fake news" has become an easy and inaccurate label to pin on critical reports and uncomfortable truths.

Covid-19 shows how disorganised and incoherent is the government's PR strategy.

State agencies often offered contradictory information on Covid vaccines and hospital beds available for Covid-19 patients. Facing criticism, government agencies accused the media of spreading "fake news".

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a more general loss of media freedom. Many state agencies were reported to have intentionally closed their doors to journalists.

This approach denied the media opportunities to scrutinise budget spending and vaccine policy.

As a result, crucial information about the pandemic, especially on how the government is using taxpayers' money, is not available, which prevents the public from holding politicians accountable.

During the peak of Covid last year, reporters complained of lacking information on vaccine purchasing as well as bidding on ATK test kits.

The same trend shows up in the Reporters Without Borders's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, released last April.

Thailand was ranked 137th out of 180 countries in the index, three places above its 2020 ranking at 140th.

The index analysis noted there is "a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage," in Asia and that the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists' access to information.

Hopefully, the situation will improve in the year 2022.

Facing the threat of a new variant, the government will need the media's help to inform society about Covid information and risks.

For two years, the government has made use of the Covid-19 pandemic to prescribe public policy on Covid at its will.

In its third year, the government, which is held back by political infighting among MPs in the coalition government as well as PM Prayut's dwindling public popularity, will not enjoy the same immunity.

This year, society will be more vocal. Civil society and opposition MPs will question how the government spent one trillion baht on the Covid financial stimulus plan and the government should have a clear answer.

It is about time the government faced the reality that Covid-19 is no reason for restrictions on freedom of information.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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