This time last week, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, after feeling frustrated by a question about a list of potential candidates for vacant Cabinet posts, abruptly ended his own news conference, grabbed a bottle of alcohol-based sanitiser and walked toward the assembled journalists. Holding a surgical mask in front of his face, he proceeded to spray reporters.
By Friday, while at the Royal Thai Police Headquarters, the Prime Minister apologised for his actions, saying: “Usually I joke around with reporters like this. I won’t do it again and will follow the rules. Sorry, I guess.” Aside from some mild editorial remarks from major news outlets and a temporary flare up on social media, reaction to Prayut’s alcohol-based faux pas, the story lasted less than a week, before the Thai media turned their attention to the Constitutional Court decision or the Astra Zeneca vaccine delay over blood clot concerns.
However, the media should have kept one eye on Prayut’s mercurial behaviour toward journalists, as the broader story needs further attention. The antics of the Prime Minister are being normalised before our very eyes – and it is coming from a variety of sources. On Wednesday, March 10, it came from Palang Pracharath Party MP Pareena Kraikupt, who made light of the incident by saying: “When the disinfectant machine at the Government House is broken, it is up to the premier to show his love and care for the reporters right?” Pareena also suggested that Prayut was being “playful” and that reporters were in on the joke, which was “why he was playing with them”.
In November 2014, Prayut also came under fire after patting the head of a journalist and twisting the man’s ear while taking questions in the northern city of Khon Kaen. While the incident didn’t draw much attention from journalists, some people took offence, as the head is considered a half-sacred part of the body that should not be touched by strangers. Funny, offensive or not, deputy government spokesperson Sansern Kaewkamnerd characterised the incident differently: “It came across as cute. He was smiling. They were also smiling. It’s not weird for [Prayut] to be playful with them.”
Some incidents also get swept away as normal or light-hearted moments between a leader and a press corps. In December 2014, Thai Rath caught Prayut throwing a half-eaten banana peel at a cameraman’s head in front of the rest of the assembled press, which drew laughter from the assembled crowd. The antics of the Prime Minister eventually made their way into Thai arts and culture stories. Prayut could have a career in standup comedy The Nation quipped, as “journalists know he has a humorous side – just ask the recipients of his tossed banana peels”.
In January 2018, Prayut found another way to dodge reporters questions by producing a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself – which was supposed to be used for Children’s Day events – and told reporters to direct questions to it instead of him. “If you want to ask any questions on politics or conflict,” Prayut said, “ask this guy.” The stunt was reported by news outlets around the globe, some with a critical eye, while others used it in “offbeat” segments designed to entertain rather than inform.
Prayut’s antics are neither entertaining nor humorous. They’re dangerous. After the same banana peel incident, the Prime Minister threatened the media with Article 44 (of the Interim Charter) or martial law after he claimed they ruined his image. In September 2014, after being asked if he intended to be a prime minister from a coup d’etat only, he threatened a journalist at Government House, remarking, “I’ll smack you with the podium”.
The media, Thai politicians or the general public should not gloss over Prayut’s abnormal behaviour as funny or entertaining because they are also matched with more serious and consequential – or existential threats to journalism in Thailand. This is the same Prayut that endorsed a decree in October that banned publishing or broadcasting news that could incite fear. This was the same military and monarchy backed decree that was issued at the height of pro-democracy and pro-reform protests and widespread calls for Prayut’s resignation.
This is still the same regime that summoned dozens of reporters for “attitude adjustment” after the 2014 coup d’état and issued orders under the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to prohibit media outlets from distributing information that might “aim to discredit” the military-backed junta.
Prayut’s government, through the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), suspended licenses for media outlets on several different occasions, claiming the content that “could lead to confusion, could provoke conflict, or could cause social division”. It’s unsurprising that Thailand’s Press Freedom Index, issued by Reporters without Borders, plummeted four places from 2019 and 10 places from 2014 to rank 140 out of 180 worldwide.
The media in Thailand cannot afford to facilitate the normalisation of behaviour by officials who would limit free expression and threaten their very existence
Prayut’s behavior is in line with other notorious strongmen across Southeast Asia who have also had tumultuous relationships with the press. Rodrigo Duterte, the populist tyrant from the Philippines, like Prayut has targeted news outlets who have been critical of his national crackdown on narcotics. He recently called the national daily newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and broadcaster ABS-CBN “shameless”, “sons of whore journalists”. Later, ABS-CBN was forced off the air by Duterte. He also suggested to journalists that they were “not exempted from assassination” after being asked how he would address the high murder rate for journalists nationwide.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has also had his fits with journalists, and recently endorsed a draconian law cloaked under the Covid-19 crisis that gives the government broad powers to monitor interpersonal communications and the power to restrict reporting by all national media outlets. While Human Rights Watch has detailed a longer list of targeted journalists by Hun Sen, most absurdly, journalist Sovann Rithy was convicted in October last year of incitement and given a suspended 18-month sentence for quoting comments made by the prime minister.
The normalisation of Prime Minister Prayut’s antics should be of considerable interest to the media, yet part of its natural turn to other stories is guided by cognition. Normalisation is subjective. Human beings are wired to accept both the positive and negative aspects of events. Studies have shown that we can be influenced by events, whether in film, television or in reality and that the impressions made can alter what was previously unacceptable.
Our perception of what is normal can also gradually shift, sometimes aided by the colourful language of politicians, spokespersons, or the media themselves. While normalisation might feel inevitable, it is the responsibility of the press and the public to push back hard against it.
The media in Thailand cannot afford to facilitate the normalisation of behaviour by officials who would limit free expression and threaten their very existence.
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.