Journos accuse Thai gov’t of crackdown on freedom

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Elderly people and their carers queue for walk-in Covid-19 vaccinations at Bang Sue Central Railway Station in Bangkok on July 22 as Thailand struggles to inoculate its population due to vaccine shortages. AFP

Thailand's six key media organisations are demanding that the government stop controlling people’s freedom of speech under the authority of an emergency decree.

The demand was made in a joint statement issued on July 28 after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced via Facebook on July 27 that serious steps would be taken to deal with “fake news”.

The organisations are the National Press Council, News Broadcasting Council, Thai Journalists Association, Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, Society for Online News Provider Association and National Union of Journalists Thailand.

The government has threatened to invoke Article 9 of the Emergency Decree, which was enforced on July 15. According to the decree, strict action will be taken against people spreading false information or fake news to cause fear or shake the state’s stability.

However, the media organisations pointed out that this announcement aims to limit the freedom and rights of people and the press. They argued that branding reports as “fake news” is merely an excuse for censorship by the authorities, calling on those in the press to demand the government stop using this as justification to control the public.

Joint statement said: “The government must abolish the emergency decree provision, which infringes on freedom of expression.

“On July 15, 2021, we expressed our concern over the government’s invocation of Section 9 of the 2005 Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, and introduction of a new set of measures.

“[These] outlaw the ‘distortion of information and news that cause misunderstanding in emergency situations, the presentation and dissemination of news in books, published material and other media that contains messages that incite fear to the public, or intentionally distort information to create misunderstanding in emergency situations that impacts state security, peace and public morality’,” it said.

The communique noted that the six associations issued a joint statement on July 15 urging the government to “reconsider the new measures, or clarify its intention as to how they will be enforced, in order to prevent misuse as instruments to censor media coverage and infringe on the public’s freedom of expression”.

Following Prayut’s July 27 Facebook announcement, the media organisations met and reached three key conclusions, according to the statement.

“Firstly, the prime minister’s insistence on enforcing the new measures, along with the recent attempts by his government to intimidate and take legal action against members of the public who simply exercise their constitutional rights to criticise the administration during the Covid-19 pandemic, clearly reveal an intent to crack down on the freedom of expression enjoyed by the media and the public.

“Secondly, the government’s assertion that the new measures are necessary to tackle what it terms as ‘fake news’ shows its refusal to acknowledge the administration’s failure in its communications with the public,” the statement said.

It admitted that a “small number” of media outlets occasionally publish inaccurate information, but stressed that this was “not the result of any intentional plot to disseminate falsehoods or cause damage to society, as is often alleged by the government and its Information Operations”.

“They were simply journalistic errors that can occur in the media industry, and which can be corrected by presenting accurate information,” the statement said, arguing that losing credibility was a high-enough price to pay for such blunders.

“Thirdly, we call upon all professionals in the media and news agencies to stand in unison and oppose the government’s new measures. We also urge the media establishment to take utmost care to ensure that their news coverage is accurate and compliant with the highest journalistic standards – in order to deny the government any excuse to interfere with media operations, which will in turn affect the public’s right to information,” it added.

The media associations vowed to uphold the maxim that that “media freedom is the freedom of the people”, asserting that any attempt to undermine freedom of the press is “an assault on the public’s freedom of expression”.

“In the coming days, we will continue to campaign against the government’s new measures, until the authorities realise that their efforts to silence the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press will only lead to the government’s downfall,” the statement said.