Curb on reporting monarchy reform push could kill debate in Thailand

Observers say the broadcast regulator’s recent warning against media reporting demands for monarchy reform could lead to self-censorship by both media outlets and academics.

Some media outlets view the move as a threat, while academics may now be reluctant to express views on the monarchy for fear of being punished. Analysts say such self-censorship could finally stifle all public debate on the issue.

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) last week called a meeting with digital TV broadcasters and advised them to refrain from covering the youth-led protest movement’s demands for monarchy reform, citing a recent Constitutional Court verdict.

The Constitutional Court ruled last month that speeches on monarchy reform delivered by three protest leaders – Arnon Nampa, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok – amounted to attempts to overthrow the country’s democratic system with the King as head of state. The court also ordered the trio and their allies to end all moves against the monarchy.

The NBTC warned that broadcasters who reported calls for monarchy reform could face fines, suspension or cancellation of their licenses.

The regulator also asked the media to refrain from interviewing people on the subject. It said the act of reporting in and of itself could be interpreted as an attempt to overthrow the country’s constitutional monarchy.

The NBTC told broadcasters that media were free to interview academics or analysts about the court verdict, but warned them to be more careful not to violate the ruling.

The regulator cited Article 37 of the 2008 Broadcast and Television Business Act. Article 37 bans broadcasts that incite the overthrow of democratic government with the King as head of state, threaten state security, public order or morality, or are obscene or risk serious deterioration of the minds or health of the public.

Sources who attended the meeting but asked to remain anonymous, said it felt like the NBTC was warning them to refrain from reporting on calls for monarchy reform or face harsh penalties. They were told that to avoid possible punishment, they should be more careful or focus on other issues.

Regulator punishing the messenger?

The NBTC’s move means that academics may also be too worried to express opinions on TV about monarchy-reform demands, admitted political analyst Yuthaporn Issarachai from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.

Even before the NBTC’s intervention, the issue had disappeared from the media spotlight since most protest leaders are now detained in prison, said Yuthaporn. Moreover, the protests have lost momentum under new-face leaders and no longer draw as much public attention.

“Eventually, the subject [monarchy reform] could fade out from society,” said the academic, who frequently appears as an analyst in political news programmes.

He complained that the NBTC had restricted media freedom by interpreting the court verdict too broadly instead of focusing on broadcasters’ intentions.

“Explaining events or a phenomenon doesn’t always mean you support [the issue] or take sides,” said Yuthaporn.

Alarming threats to media freedom are threats to everyone’s freedom

For viewers of foreign media, available through Thai cable TV packages, it has become the norm to see unscheduled messages filling the screen and blocking content for several minutes, a tool used to censor content which may be deemed to be touching upon the highly sensitive topic of the monarchy or to be unfavourable to the Thai government.

Threat of self-censorship

Nation TV managing editor Pakorn Peungnetr views the NBTC’s advice as a guideline rather than an order or rule. He said media outlets are normally very careful or make professional judgements when reporting the news.

He recently instructed his editorial staff to always mention the court ruling in reports about the monarchy-reform movement, to ensure viewers get the full information.

Regarding political talk shows, which the NBTC is especially concerned about, Pakorn said his channel currently broadcasts both live and recorded programmes.

“If the issue dealt with is sensitive, we will air it in a pre-recorded show. And our policy is to invite guests from both sides [of the debate],” he added.

Pakorn admitted, however, that media outlets may find it difficult to perform their duties after the NBTC’s move, and opt instead to self-censor. But media who have good intentions in reporting can clarify this to the regulator, he added.

“As an editor, I’m often summoned to meetings by the NBTC, and the regulator seems to understand the mainstream media,” said Pakorn.

Balanced reporting essential

Peerawat Chotthammo, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, said he did not think the NBTC’s advice would make it more difficult for broadcast outlets to perform their journalistic duties.

“Media need to offer balance and consider the country’s context. They cannot report news that incites conflict, division, violence or generational clashes. Instead, they should blend the different contexts of separate generations together,” said Peerawat.

Despite concerns over media freedom, his association will not seek to influence reporting decisions of broadcasters following the advice of the NBTC, he said.

The association has no authority to intervene in the judgment of media as its duty is confined to regulating professional and ethical standards and providing assistance in legal cases, he added.

He said NBTC has the authority to regulate digital TV while each channel has the freedom to report content according to its own judgement.

“It’s not necessary [for TV media] to report in detail as the public already knows the [protesters’] demands. They can report the big picture to show the movement as a phenomenon,” he added.

The most important thing, he said, was to ensure balanced reporting.

“Not too much or too little, and not so much that it crosses the line on a particular issue.”

NBTC faces parliamentary grilling

However, the NBTC’s move has triggered opposition in Parliament.

Move Forward MP Amarat Chokepamitkul, a member of the House Committee on Political Development, Mass Communications and Public Participation, said the panel would invite the NBTC to explain its attempt to curb media reporting.

“Freedom of the press is essential. Media outlets should stand up and fight to protect their professional dignity, otherwise all will become useless,” said Amarat.

She added that although the court verdict was binding on all relevant actors, it should not dominate the news reports.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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