The big issue: A not-so-free press

The big issue: A not-so-free press

In this file picture taken on May 25, 2014, Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk flashes a V-sign as he stands with his mouth taped outside a military base in Bangkok where he had been summoned by the junta. (AFP photo)
In this file picture taken on May 25, 2014, Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk flashes a V-sign as he stands with his mouth taped outside a military base in Bangkok where he had been summoned by the junta. (AFP photo)

The prime minister explained that reporters can be idjits, which is true, and the soon-to-be police chief said reporters are the reason he can’t catch the Yellow T-Shirt Guy, which is not. All in the game, as we shall see, but the most devastating blow in decades to freedom of the press in Thailand came from ... the press.

The prime minister not only spoke truth to the power of the press, it was perhaps the strongest and most credible attack on the media since the days of the original Gen Sarit. That is because he backed it up by picking up one of his best known newspaper foes, throwing a hood over his head and driving him off somewhere for three days and two nights at charm school, aka attitude adjustment.

OK, Gen Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha didn’t literally do all that all by himself. You already know that. All he actually did was to establish the regime that gave himself the only power to have it done in the government’s name.

Before spiriting away The Nation’s pestiferous columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, the general PM ordered behavioural modification classes for two former Pheu Thai party MPs, smiling Pichai Naripthaphan, once minister of energy, and scrappy Karun Hosakul of Don Muang. Pravit was next to be admitted to Gen Prayut’s classes, causing more of a stir.

Gen Prayut had not ordered journalists to undergo psychological warfare assaults since shortly after the coup. But Pravit’s detention came along with an extraordinary verbal assault by the prime minister on critics in general and the media specifically.

He suggested people with suggestions about how to improve the regime could improve their personal safety by remaining silent. To put it another way: He will “summon” anyone he feels is disrupting the government and military’s pious and sincere efforts to restore peace in Thai politics. No Pheu Thai arrestees were harmed in making this policy, but are “requested” to refrain from criticising the military regime and “asked” to sign a promise, although not in actual blood.

As for you media lot.

Gen Prayut rode a bicycle to the Tuesday cabinet meeting, where he stood outside his Government House door and told the assembled press club members they lack ethics ... some of them. The national press associations should (but won’t) curb them. Gen Prayut was undoubtedly miffed at learning just before mounting up for the ride that the Thai Journalists Association had joined international media and civil society organisations to demand that his personal National Council for Peace and Order release Pravit.

It is pertinent to report that 48 hours later, Gen Prayut sat down with the partly unethical reporters of Government House for a cordial lunch. This is always part of the shenanigans of an unchecked government, in this case quite literally a use of the big stick followed by the carrot.

What came next was not as pretty. Pravit, released from military custody, found that he was not so welcome at Nation Tower Bang Na as one might expect for a newsman who just took one for the newspaper and for the media in general, where “general” is an intended pun. In most places, in most countries including Thailand, he would get a party and warm handshakes.

Pravit was greeted by some management and self-appointed “representatives of the staff” as a pariah they didn’t want around any more. Not to put a fine point on it, Pravit was savaged, and not just by fearful and desk-bound executives more interested in The Nation’s bottom line than any of that freedom-of-the-press nonsense in the constitution and law and serving readers.

There were plenty of those cavilling executives for sure, but the attack on Pravit as a trouble-making, military-hating threat to the smooth running of a newspaper came from his working colleagues. Nation TV host Kanok Ratwongsakul, previously well known for the selfie session he had with Bangkok Shutdown leader Suthep Thaugsuban, now is to be remembered for not only claiming people with different (and minority) political opinions can’t work together, but forcing Pravit to admit it.

Pravit told detractors he would clear out his personal effects and officially leave The Nation next week. Executives at the newspaper were publicly happy.

Since the paper was founded in 1972 as a much-needed second voice in the English-language niche of Bangkok dailies, The Nation has always — always — been one of the leading publications in press freedom anywhere. It spoke truth to power, took near-ruinous hits through government bans and financial punishment to keep and hold its standards of freedom of the press. Please note the past tense.

The military’s attempts to give Pravit a two-night, three-day brain cleansing will be an asterisk in some books about Thailand’s lengthy civil divide.

The blackballing, humiliation and expulsion of a senior journalist because he disagreed with the pro-yellow shirt majority in the newspaper’s newsroom will be noted as a far more influential development as one of the country’s most vital voices turned away from reconciliation.

Alan Dawson

Online Reporter / Sub-Editor

A Canadian by birth. Former Saigon's UPI bureau chief. Drafted into the American Armed Forces. He has survived eleven wars and innumerable coups. A walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

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