By George Henton
In the latest attack on press freedoms in Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeated previous claims that he has the power to shut down any media outlets that fail to praise him and his government.
“I will shut them down only when they don’t say good things,” Prayuth told reporters during a visit to a military college Friday in Bangkok. “I have not yet shut down any publications, but please write in a good way. If it is not good, then I will need to do that.”The prime minister’s comments come amid growing domestic and international criticism of the Thai government’s decision to lift martial law, only to replace it with new powers described by the United Nations as “even more draconian.”
Prayuth came to power last year when the Thai military took control in a coup, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra after months of street protests in Bangkok that often turned violent.
Related: Thailand’s military government thinks John Oliver is a threat to its monarchy. Read more here.
Despite promises from the junta of a swift return to democracy, human rights groups are increasingly concerned that freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Thailand are being irreconcilably curtailed.
“Since the military seized power, there have been far-reaching restrictions placed on free speech that are stifling debate and a once vibrant civil society,” Olof Blomqvist, a spokesman for Amnesty International, told VICE News. “The media operates under the watch of censorship panels and face harsh restrictions on what they can report.”
Blomqvist added that the military “seems to simply be granting itself further powers to repress,” rather than rolling back the emergency measures that were enacted after Prayuth took control.
Prayuth has had a mercurial relationship with the press. In one instance, the junta leader was filmed stroking the ear of a reporter. In another, he threw a banana peel at a cameraman. He first threatened to ban media outlets last year.
“I have endured it for a long time now,” Prayuth said at the time, referencing what he viewed as unflattering coverage in the press. “They criticize me on every issue, every page of the newspapers. What the hell is wrong with them? Are they crazy?
“But this time, I will shut them down for real,” he continued. “I cannot allow them to continue their disrespect. Otherwise, what’s the point of me being prime minister? What’s the point of having martial law?”
Related: Thailand indicts Yingluck Shinawatra over controversial rice subsidy scheme. Read more here.
Last week, Prayuth responded to a question on how the government would deal with journalists who did not adhere to his official line by telling reporters he could “probably just execute” members of the media who “did not report the truth.”
The remarks drew swift international condemnation.
“We sincerely hope that this threat was not a serious one,” US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said. “We have repeatedly called for lifting restrictions on freedom of expression in Thailand, and in our view, statements like these, even if not serious, contribute to an atmosphere where those freedoms could be suppressed.”
David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, also condemned the comments.
“After a year of killings and terrible violence against journalists worldwide, such statements are simply outrageous,” Kaye said. “Even if he did [speak in jest], the idea that the killing of journalists — let alone the shutting down of media in light of criticism — can be a laughing matter is reprehensible.”
A spokesperson for the junta later claimed that Prayuth’s comments were merely “political satire,” but hours earlier on the same day the prime minister singled out a reporter who released a report on human trafficking in Thailand’s notorious seafood industry. “The media should consider the impact the news will have on the country,” Prayuth said. “The people who published the news will have to be held responsible.”
He then warned that Thapanee Ietsrichai, an investigative reporter with Chanel 3 Thailand, “would have to come and see officials” as a result of her investigation, which included the discovery of hidden graves containing the remains of hundreds of Thai citizens.
Related: Thai authorities raided a famous Buddhist tiger temple for alleged wildlife trafficking. Read more here.
Prayuth isn’t the only top official in Thailand who has attempted to intimidate the press. General Prawit Wongsuwan, a highly influential figure in the government, recently warned reporters that they could be “followed” and put under surveillance if they asked “silly questions.”
Andrew Marshall, an outspoken critic of the ruling junta and a former Reuters journalist in Thailand, wrote a book on the country’s monarchy that is banned there. Marshall told VICE News that the recent remarks by Prayuth and other officials illustrate the “ignorance” and “incompetence” of the regime.
“Press freedom in Thailand has never been worse than it is now,” Marshall said. “Any critics of the junta face persecution, and, potentially, years in jail. The Thai junta willfully pretends to misunderstand the whole point of an independent media, and claims journalists ‘don’t listen’ and ‘don’t help.'”
Marshall compared the current situation in Thailand to the past crackdown on media under the ruling military junta in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“In recent decades, the Burmese junta was widely mocked for its failure to accept reality and its utter disconnection from the modern information economy,” Marshall said. “Now the Thais have overtaken the Burmese in terms of denial and lack of understanding of the modern world.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit organization based in New York City that promotes press freedoms around the world, also decried the current state of affairs in Thailand.
“All media heavily self-censor their news coverage, shying away from criticism of the junta and its authoritarian ways,” a CPJ spokesperson told VICE News. “The lines on what is permissible to report are deliberately blurred to keep journalists in fear. All signs are the press freedom situation will get worse before better as long as Prime Minister Prayuth is in power.” – Vice News
Follow George Henton on Twitter: @georgehenton
By George Henton