MAHA SARAKHAM — Journalists, academics, and observers criticized the government’s repression of press freedom in public forum at Mahasarakham University last month. The forum also featured the Swedish Ambassador to Thailand, who pointed out the importance of the right to freedom of expression and voiced concern about the government’s “Thailand 4.0” vision.

A public forum co-hosted by the Faculty of Informatics and The Isaan Record on 15 September brought together several academics, journalists, and community organizers to offer their perspectives on freedom of expression and the state of the press.

Sweden’s Ambassador to Thailand Staffan Herrström relates the Swedish experience on press freedom and freedom of expression. “Swedish experiences, yes for sure. But the values they are based on are global; they belong to us all,” Mr. Herrström says.

Repression in the name of peace and order

Sumet Somkhane, a representative from the Thai Journalists Association committee on press freedom and media reform, said that under the current government the media is free to report only on some topics. Issues deemed as potentially causing “unrest” are subject to restrictive measures. Sensitive issues range from political movements to the defense of community rights.

The government’s underlying mindset, Sumet said, is that the best way to govern is by imposing peace and order.

The military junta, officially named the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has ruled Thailand since it overthrew an elected government in May 2014.

Earlier this year, the NCPO attempted to force all journalists to be licensed by the government. But after a backlash from journalists and media experts, the junta back-pedaled on the measure.

Staffan Herrström, Sweden’s Ambassador to Thailand, said in the keynote speech that freedom of expression and press freedom are crucial components in Sweden’s constitution and public life. Giving the Swedish populace and media the right to freedom of expression has fostered a space for resolving conflicts.

“Nowadays many countries use conflict as a reason to limit and repress the right to the freedom of expression. But in our experience, freedom of expression isn’t thought of as a fuel for conflict, but rather as a tool that can be used to find common solutions.”

Sweden was the world’s first country to institute a law ensuring freedom of the press in 1766.

Digitalization without freedom

Mr. Herrström, a former journalist, also commented on the NCPO’s digitalization project, “Thailand 4.0,” in response to a question from the audience. Citing the case of Sweden where innovation is high, Herrström said that successful digitalization needs to go hand in hand with an encouragement for people to “think outside the box.” This requires the protection of freedom of expression and press freedom, both online and offline.

“If these freedoms aren’t guaranteed, then it would be incompatible with digitalization,” remarked the Swedish Ambassador.

Sarinee Achavanuntakul, independent scholar and member of the Thai Netizen network, pointed to social media as a key site where the government tries to harass and interfere. She warned about the dangers of the new Computer Crimes Act, in effect since May 24 this year.

The new Computer Crimes Act sets the terms of punishment for those who distribute information deemed as “affecting national security,” establishes a committee for screening digital information, and seeks punishment of service providers, including website owners and online media platforms such as Facebook, Line, and Twitter.

Ms. Sarinee called this law a form of indirect coercion, even if the service provider avoids punishment if they remove prohibited content within a certain time frame. The law forces the users of social media and other online media to censor themselves from sharing useful information out of fear of punishment.

“Besides exerting control through law, the government tries to publish propaganda on social media as well,” said Ms. Sarinee, adding that she once received an online message to post about a government policy on her Facebook wall. “They requested that I not be too critical if I were to criticize the government.”

Panelists from the session on the state of the press in Thailand. From left to right: Angkana Promraksa (facilitator), Sarinee Achavanuntakul, Burapa Lekluanngarm, Sumet Somkhane, and Chainarong Srettachau

Corporate threats

Chainarong Srettachau, a professor of Community Development in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies at Mahasarakham University, argued that the harassment of the media in Thai society has changed from making threats on lives and property of reporters to the deployment of law to silence them.

The method most often used by companies is the so-called Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPPs are lawsuits intended to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense.

The government often resorts to laws such as Article 116, which prohibits inciting the public through speech, books, or other forms of media.

Though cases rarely result in convictions, they are still useful to businesses. Those involved in court are forbidden from giving public comment throughout their trial. This creates a vacuum of accountability, where the media and the public sector are unable continue their work as freely.

“Confronting methods like SLAPP requires that the law be amended to prevent such filings. Otherwise, the media will be silenced, and many problems won’t receive scrutiny,” claimed Mr. Chainarong.

From Mr. Sumet’s observations, about 80 percent of funding for the media in Thailand comes from corporate sources. As the media in Thailand is going through financial troubles, this reliance on certain funders affects press freedom, as the media may choose not to report on certain topics that might affect their sponsors.

This has resulted in big businesses’ total power in bargaining and determining how the media operate, said the representative from the Thai Journalists Association.

A Swedish model

Aside from legal measures, the Swedish ambassador detailed the effective regulatory system in Sweden which deals with unethical breaches of the journalistic code.

In Sweden, most of the ethical issues in media are managed within the media sector itself through a self-regulating system of the Press Council. The Council handles complaints from people who take issue with something that has been published by the media. The Council is comprised of journalists, and is headed by an ombudsman. If the council finds a complaint valid, it will force the media outlet in question to publish the council’s verdict as a punishment.

The Thai Journalists Association has expressed interest in creating a Thai media council which takes after the Swedish one, remarked Mr. Herrström.

Reporting by Danuchat Boon-aran. Danuchat is a participant of The Isaan Journalism Network Project 2017 organized by The Isaan Record.