When soldiers walked into the Thai PBS building last week to order the dismissal of a programme presenter, things changed. The officers told station management that their "bosses" on the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) required that Nattaya Wawweerakup be taken off the air. The way she ran Voices of the People that Change Thailand had displeased some high-ranking officials. The broadcaster immediately took action against the journalist — but the fallout has barely begun.
The unsavoury end to Nattaya's show has triggered a lot of reaction. None is favourable to the NCPO, meaning specifically Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his top martial law enforcers. The Thai PBS's board of governors and the station itself have issued separate public protests. Both back Nattaya's professionalism and say her removal is unwarranted. The board referred to the military's actions as "intimidation and interference".
Also quick to criticise the attack on the TV broadcaster was Thienchay Kiranandana, the selected president of Gen Prayut's hand-picked National Reform Council. He said he now intends to establish a forum to hear the opinions of the silenced people that Nattaya was hosting on her show. He also predicted that martial law will bring more conflict and more military-backed orders for the media to stop doing what it is doing under enormously difficult provisions — informing the country of what is happening.
Current censorship of all Thai media comes under the twin orders No.97 and No.103, issued in the wake of the May 22 coup. The first essentially bans journalists from interviewing or publishing the views of academics, former government officials, ex-judges and former members of independent bodies. The other bans the broadcast and publication of any adverse criticism of the NCPO. The two orders were issued by the junta under the questionable intent to prevent the media from causing "conflict and confusion", or threatening national security.
The official media organisations took time to consider the PBS incident and now are reacting strongly and properly. The Thai Journalists Association correctly pointed to the biggest single threat to press freedom in the case: martial law. TJA vice-chairman Manop Thip-osod, a Bangkok Post reporter, said the group will launch a campaign this week for the junta to rescind the two censorship orders. Mr Manop exposed the irony of Section 4 of the military's own interim constitution that guarantees all traditional rights and freedoms, and that certainly includes press freedom.
It is telling that the only reaction from the military, including martial law authorities, is a carefully worded denial from army chief Gen Udomdej Sitabutr. He said he doubted there was any intimidation used at Thai PBS. He noted that the military "needs to talk with those [journalists and executives] who do not understand the situation".
This is not a good or convincing explanation. Once again, the military authorities have called for public input on national reform. Once again, the same authorities have acted with extreme prejudice to shut down public voices on the issue of reform.
Less than a week before its six-month anniversary, the NCPO will find spirited discussion over its actions, the Thai PBS statements, and the reactions of other prominent groups and individuals. It may be that the heavy-handed censorship will spark much opposition and little support.
Until now, the demands to revoke martial law have been largely muted. Gen Prayut's claims he needs martial law because of security threats are credible, and military rule seems to have had little effect on tourism. This is likely to change as the public discovers that martial law is preventing the free flow of information.