Are some things better left unsaid? Media self-censorship in Thailand

For journalists in Thailand, more tools and opportunities are available than ever before to capture scenes that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But Thai authorities have pushed back, threatening both subtly and not to punish the messengers, leaving reporters in a bind of self-censorship

Written By:
April 1, 2021
Are some things better left unsaid? Media self-censorship in Thailand
A vendor arranges newspapers at her newsstand in Bangkok on March 25, 2019. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

On March 20 after police dispersed the REDEM protest along Ratchadamnoen Avenue in Bangkok, a series of portraits of King Vajiralongkorn were vandalised and strewn along the roadside. According to reports, the portraits were vandalised using spray paint, some containing insulting graffiti. Workers toiled into the early morning hours of Sunday clearing the road and removing damaged flowers that adorned the portraits. 

A quick Google search for the event revealed limited details about the incident. Photographs of the demonstration, either through social media or elsewhere online are missing. Self-censorship among Thai journalists is the main reason why. 

Even Pravit Rojanaphruk of Khaosod English didn’t dare post images to social media due to the potentially serious repercussions of Thailand’s draconian Article 112, or lèse majesté law. As a veteran journalist, Pravit pushed as hard as he could, reporting the event on Facebook Live and through Twitter. 

He instructed his colleague, Tappanai Boonbandit, to only show the base of the large portraits. During the broadcast, Pravit instructed his viewers that he could not show them because of the constraints of Article 112. The events of March 20 went largely uncovered by most Thai media. 

It’s a brave, new, yet unpredictable world for Thai journalists. Social media has changed the landscape of reporting and, thanks to a public dialogue driven by vocal protestors, 2020 was a groundbreaking, controversial year for political commentary about the Thai monarchy. But even as professional and citizen journalists alike have more tools and opportunities than ever before to capture scenes that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, they’re faced with an even greater urge to self-censor the potentially illegal messages on the street. In the face of a new kind of activism from a vocal public, Thai authorities have pushed back, threatening both subtly and not to punish the messengers.

While aware of the consequences of running afoul of Article 112 – three to 15 years in prison – media outlets still erred on the side of caution when human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, wearing a black gown and a Harry Potter-style scarf, spoke about the role of the monarchy in Thai politics. He was arguably the first to break the social taboo of criticising the monarchy in public.

His headliner speech came as a surprise to some Thai media outlets who, in fearing lèse majesté, cut their live footage of the speech. Some reporting of the event left out the references to the monarchy. 

A man reads a newspaper reporting on the inauguration of US President Joe Biden in Bangkok on 21 January. Photo: EPA-EFE/Narong Sangnak

Self-censorship among journalists normally refers to acts of censorship that aren’t compelled or coerced, but aim to avoid offending those that hold power, such as publishers, advertisers, the government or major business interests. However in Thailand, like other parts of Southeast Asia, seismic political and social changes have contributed to a rise in self-censorship based on coercion.

Article 112 presents a major dilemma for Thai media outlets. In speaking with several journalists for this column, reporters acknowledged to me the existential nature of their predicament. Journalists are largely free to gather information for print or broadcast without consequences, only to have their material censored by editors or influential employees involved in making major editorial decisions. Others make conscious decisions out of a sense of self-preservation to not report on issues that are critical of the monarchy, the military or the Prayut-led government. 

In the past, when Thailand was divided into red and yellow camps, self-censorship was not guided by fears of lèse majesté, but the political whims of those who made editorial decisions. Though the exact nature of this self-muzzling has shifted between administrations, the underlying factors have been much the same.

Conditions were bleak under Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications mogul first elected prime minister in 2001 who would come to use a combination of state and corporate power to put pressure on journalists to limit coverage from media outlets he did not own or control.

During the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, which began in 2008, officials at the state-owned MCOT public broadcaster would create strict guidelines for coverage. These included no wide shots of assembled Red Shirts, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and cutting speeches from leadership of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship activist group.

The needle swung yet again during the era of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, who took office as prime minister in 2011 and led until her removal by military coup in 2014. I was told by people in the media that interviews with analysts sympathetic to the royalist Yellow Shirts during the Preah Vihear temple conflict, a tense, armed exchange with neighbouring Cambodia, were left on the editing room floor. Opposition soundbites were limited. 

In today’s highly charged political climate, connections with corporate clients can also become hot-button political issues, as is the case now with MK and Yayoi restaurants after they sponsored right-wing news channel TOP News. Advertisers can come under pressure from the public or connected groups to pull their support for media outlets, potentially risking the survival of the media organisation itself. 

It’s not surprising that a harsh legal environment and a relentless crackdown on free expression in Thailand has strengthened the culture of self-censorship among Thai journalists. Many news outlets have been called directly by officials from the Thai Public Relations Department (PRD), warning newsrooms about certain aspects of their coverage or to prevent coverage of particularly sensitive topics. 

The political environment has led to controversy after the 2014 May coup and during a period of speculation over the health of then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej. When the International New York Times, formerly the International Herald Tribune, ran a story on the late monarch in their September 22, 2015 edition, local publishers refused to print it. A story that December on royal wealth was also deemed too sensitive and was censored by Thai publishers. 

In December 2016, BBC Thai ran afoul of written and unwritten rules regarding reporting on the monarchy when it published a profile of King Vajiralongkorn and more controversial aspects of his background. Threatening comments were made by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha and the BBC’s office received multiple visits from both the army and police. The link to the BBC story was soon blocked in Thailand. 

Soldiers and police visited the newspaper office, asking questions about staff. Hathairat said that the following day soldiers visited the coffee shop next to their office and made similar inquiries

The scope of media censorship is also a testament to how successful the military-backed government has been in intimidating journalists and creating both a legal and political environment that is hostile to a free and fair press. In March 2020, the government created an emergency decree under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic that would punish Thai journalists for publishing an article the government deemed to be false or capable of causing fear. The decree also allowed the government to order the media to correct information they found injurious – with the possibility of future penalties under the Computer Crimes Act.

Journalists like Hathairat Phaholtap, the editor of the Isaan Record have first-hand knowledge and experience with intimidation. In October last year, the newspaper interviewed human rights lawyer Nampa – largely about topics related to the pro-reform movement – with one pointed question at the end inviting criticism of the monarchy. After the interview, both soldiers and police visited the newspaper office, asking questions about staff. Hathairat said that the following day soldiers visited the coffee shop next to their office and made similar inquiries about Isaan Record staff to the baristas. 

That wasn’t the only time the Isaan Record struck a nerve with the authorities. It came under surveillance by police when the newspaper reported on an International Women’s Day activity on March 8 by Femliberate, a Khon Kaen University activist group that placed a sarong around a statue of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. This time, their critics included pro-monarchy groups and sympathetic media.

While the landscape may be bleak, there is some room for optimism. Political dynamics have also changed the way journalists report the news. The fact that reporting of any kind about the monarchy exists is evidence of changing norms of journalism in Thailand. The growing use of social media, now with more than 52 million Thai users, is also important. Reportage on mainstream televisions screens sometimes differs dramatically from charismatic, detailed broadcasts on Facebook Live. Social media has also provided a space for often-targeted outlets like Voice TV and other progressive, independent media. 

However, these positive developments have not altered Thailand’s paltry World Press Freedom Index score, which was ranked 140th in the world for 2020. 

To exist in this hostile environment, Thai journalists, editors, and those responsible for making key editorial positions must navigate Article 112 and other forms of intimidation with determination. Editorial decisions must carefully balance the integrity of the news organisation, as well as the security of its journalists. 

These decisions aren’t made lightly. Decisions that are too far on the wrong side of the lèse majesté law, risk grave personal consequences. Using an abundance of caution means compromising professional ethics. Frankly, there are no easy solutions to a problem that has permeated nearly every ASEAN country.  

For journalists, are some things that are better left unsaid? For now, it depends on the price they are willing to pay.

Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, as well as a columnist for the Globe.

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