Since the coup in 2014, Thailand’s climate of free speech, already previously threatened by lèse majesté prosecutions and restrictions in online speech, has gotten far chillier. The country has fallen in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index from 129th in the world in 2014 out of 180 surveyed countries to an abysmal 142nd in the world in the 2017 version of the index, only three places above South Sudan, a country at war with itself. Reporters without Borders noted that media freedom, globally, has never been so threatened in recent times, and this is certainly true in Southeast Asia more broadly as well.
Since 2014, the Thai military has reportedly detained at least hundreds if not thousands of possible opponents for sessions in army camps, has overseen an environment in which even formerly independent media outlets are increasingly afraid to publish any criticism of the military and the prime minister, and has also overseen a growing number of threats against foreign reporters in Thailand. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s Southeast Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, who is based in Bangkok, has had his passport seized, effectively preventing him from leaving the country, while he faces defamation charges after a story he did about alleged fraud in Phuket.
But even in Thailand’s already repressive post-coup environment for the domestic and foreign media, the situation has become noticeably worse since late last year. According to Agence France Presse, prosecutions for cases related to lèse majesté already had been rising since 2014, the year of the coup, but in recent weeks the severity of charges for lèse majesté defendants also have increased. Earlier this week, a Thai court brought a wide range of charges related to lèse majesté and other related offenses against a prominent activist, lawyer, and writer, Prawet Prapanuku. If found guilty, he could face a maximum sentence of some 150 years in jail, which reportedly would be the longest sentence handed out in modern times for lèse majesté. Earlier this week, the Thai government also banned an event planned to be held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand; the military has in the past three years banned other events at the club, which had tended to be an oasis of free speech even during past periods of military rule.
Thailand’s rulers have even recently gone so far as to publicly announce, through the ministry responsible for the digital economy and society, that Thais are now prohibited from any interaction with three of the kingdom’s most well-known critics. These three are Thai academic in exile Pavin Chachavalpongpun, author in exile Andrew MacGregor Marshall, and historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who also lives in exile. According to the Guardian, “The [Thai] ministry statement said citizens should not follow, contact or share content from the trio on the internet or social media [even though all three do not even live in Thailand.] The letter added that people who disseminate their information, directly or indirectly, could be violating the country’s Computer Crime Act.”
Why is Thailand’s media environment becoming even more constrained? In part, this further crackdown may be due to rising uncertainty within Thai domestic politics, as the military and the increasingly assertive king seem to be struggling behind the scenes for greater control in Bangkok. The crackdown could be due as well as the uncertain timetable for elections supposedly promised for next year. It may be due to a lingering fear among some Thai government officials that, despite changing the constitution to reduce the power of major parties, there is still some chance that a Thaksinite party, or the Democrat Party, will gain substantial control of the lower house of parliament in the next election; ensuring that independent media outlets have little space to report allows the military to dominate the daily discourse about domestic politics.
The growing suppression of media voices may also be due, in part, to the lack of external pressure on the Prayuth government to take a more accommodating approach to free expression and free speech. The new U.S. administration has said little about the Thai government’s crackdown on the press, and the U.S. president recently invited Prayuth to a visit to the White House. Other nations in the region that historically have spoke up for press freedom, like the Philippines, are now led by presidents and prime ministers who also have taken a harsh approach to the independent media, and are unlikely to push for rights in other Southeast Asian nations. Given that the new U.S. administration, the leader of the Philippines, the secretary-general of ASEAN, and other major regional figures, are unlikely to pay more attention to rights in Thailand in the next two years, the crackdown on journalism in the kingdom will almost surely get worse.