11 July 2024

Thai media has one good reason to be delighted before the month of World Press Freedom celebration passes. Thailand’s press freedom score has inched up to 87th place this year, from 106th last year.

This compares well to the overall dim picture in the Asia Pacific, where 26 out of 32 countries, including most countries in Southeast Asia, saw their scores fall, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 global press freedom index released earlier this month.

More importantly, for the first time since the election in 2019, the country’s state of freedom moved up, to ‘partially free’ from ‘not free’ status, in the Washington-based Freedom House’s annual 2024 Freedom in the World report released in February.

My point for raising this is that we should not be too complacent about the newfound freedom.

The improving state of press freedom in Thailand, due in part to a change of government in a more competitive and open electoral environment, is just the tip of the iceberg.

A decade-long legacy of pro-establishment regimes, led by 2014 coup leader and former Premier Gen Prayut Chan O-cha, still has a lasting effect on our deeply divided society and fragile democracy, including media independence.

Having observed the bumpy ride of Thailand’s political and civil liberties over the past two decades, there are reasons for my concern.

This dates back to the heyday of former elected PM Thaksin Shinawatra, when the country’s state of overall freedom began to plunge from ‘free’ to ‘partially free’ status in 2006, due to his tight grip on political and economic life, and further down to ‘not free’ in 2007, following the military coup d’état that ousted him from power in September 2006.

The founder of Thai Rak Thai, the precursor of the now-ruling Pheu Thai party, is back from his 18-year self-imposed exile abroad.

Still convicted, but free to roam under a high-level deal that puts the country’s governance and justice systems in jeopardy, he has been making a scene in the media over the past few months.

This reminds me of the popular term, previously describing the media situation at the time as ‘caught between the tiger and the crocodile.’

The term remains apt and is used these days by many media experts. It refers to the repressive regimes and the capital cronies—the two animals alluded to—that have challenged and threatened press freedom.

These forces have remained fundamentally unchanged, yet they have become more complex and insidious.

To be precise, we are ruled by a Pheu Thai-led democratically-elected coalition government, which not only excels in bargaining with authoritarian powers, but also has the skills and means to manipulate the media.

At the same time, professional journalists face a greater risk of job loss than ever, or, at best, a pay cut, as a result of the industry downsizing in response to the further shrinking of advertising revenues.

They are also threatened by fast-growing AI technology, which can increase productivity and, to some extent, creativity faster than a human.

Sad but true, most newsrooms are captive to a business model that relies on high audience engagement statistics, manipulated by social media platform algorithms, driving them to produce more trending and short-form than qualitative and in-depth content and to promote media influencers and content creators over investigative reporters.

Social media editors and content creators are more in demand since they are digitally competent and possess multimedia skills.

The key figure from the 2024 State of Media Report, by global PR and marketing firm CISION, is more compelling.

The results, based on a survey of the opinions of more than 3,000 journalists worldwide, show that over 72% say PR news is important and in demand, while 87% use multimedia content as part of their news presentation and reporting.

Yet, 47% say safeguarding the media as a trusted source of information is the toughest challenge this year.

So, back to the point I raised at the start. Despite greater freedom, we are counting on a weaker media force to fight against all odds; to hold powers accountable, investigate facts amidst information overload, and help the public make informed decisions on matters that endanger and have a greater impact on their lives, such as global competitive political and economic powers, climate change, and pandemics. The list goes on.

What can we do? We need a strong media professional community that is more united than before. Whether small or big, legacy media or digital natives, local or international it must speak with one voice when media workers come under attack, take action when media ethics are broken, and fulfil the relevant professional needs of the news industry.

The threats and challenges the media are confronting today are global, not only from ‘new’ tigers and crocodiles, but also disruptive digital technology that can empower these figurative forces to control the media and undermine a functioning democracy.

Kulachada Chaipipat is a Thailand-based media consultant. She is a former journalist and press freedom advocate.