Unrest, virus curbs thwart freedoms

Unrest, virus curbs thwart freedoms

Foreign journalists discuss obstacles to reporting in Thailand, writes Thana Boonlert

Tostevin: Journalists face intimidation
Tostevin: Journalists face intimidation

Foreign journalists have expressed concern about restrictions on press freedom in Thailand with current laws proving to be an obstacle to reporting of the anti-government protests, despite government assurances there have been no curbs on freedom of expression.

For months, the pro-democracy movement has made international headlines with demands for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to stand down, a rewritten constitution and reform of the monarchy.

Matthew Tostevin, the Southeast Asia editor for Reuters, told a forum at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) last week of the legal challenges which foreign media face when reporting news in the region.

In Thailand, in particular, conditions for the application of its lese majeste law, or Section 112 of the Criminal Code, remain in question.

"At a certain point this year [in June], we were told it was not being applied. As the media reflected, there has been a whole great deal more reporting in both local and international media of the criticisms of the monarchy.

"But now, of course, the sort of question is over how long such openness can last and how that affects us and our reporting from this country," he told the gathering.

The "Journalism Without Fear or Favour" event was held to discuss regional press freedom and was sponsored by the Netherlands Embassy in Bangkok to mark the World Press Freedom Conference 2020 on Dec 9-10 in The Hague and to commemorate International Human Rights Day on Dec 10.

The Bangkok Post asked deputy government spokeswoman Rachada Dhnadirek for comment. She said the government has not placed any restriction on the freedom of its media or citizens, but everybody must abide by the law.

"It [news] must be truthful and undistorted," she added.

Mr Tostevin had drawn attention to the brief imposition of an emergency decree in October that outlawed the publication of information that could threaten national security or create fear as well as the criminal defamation law that intimidates journalists.

He also mentioned other cases in the region ranging from censorship and lawsuits to imprisonment and bans on access to some areas, like Myanmar's Rakhine state and Indonesia's Papua province.

In April, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its annual World Press Freedom Index. Malaysia outranks its neighbours with 101st place out of 180 countries, followed by Indonesia (119), the Philippines (136), Myanmar (139), Thailand (140), Cambodia (144), Brunei (152), Singapore (158), Laos (172), and Vietnam (175).

Gwen Robinson, editor-at-large for Nikkei Asia and president of the FCCT, echoed his view and also urged the government to allow the press to use protective body armour for their own safety after firearms were used in recent protests.

Following a request by the FCCT on Nov 18, Defence Ministry spokesman Lt Gen Kongcheep Tantrawanit said the situation did not necessitate the press being authorised to wear body armour under the Arms Control Act, and said officers would be on hand to assure their safety.

Meanwhile, Tan Hui Yee, the Indochina bureau chief for The Straits Times, said press freedom had regressed since new cybersecurity laws were introduced in Thailand and Vietnam when the term "fake news" gained currency.

"But the problem with the term is that everything is lumped into a hazy mess.

"Fake news can be used to described false information and disinformation, but also opinions you disagree with," she said.

Ms Tan said the pandemic has further put restrictions on the press with the nation having been under a state of emergency since March.

"They say they need this to coordinate Covid-19 responses, but we have no idea how long this emergency will go on or whether it will be used for other purposes," she said.

On this point, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told the Bangkok Post that the state of emergency is being enforced only to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

He said its guidelines on social distancing must apply to all venues.

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