Many challenges facing the Thai media in 2021 carried over from the previous year, but with added intensity. These included the political protest movement, the COVID-19 pandemic that left more than 21,000 people dead nationwide, and ongoing attempts by the government to restrict freedom of the press.
Media in protests: physical and mental injuries
Media organizations assigned reporters and photographers to political protests that often involved clashes between security officers and demonstrators. Media professionals working in the field were inevitably affected, with a number of members of the press injured by rubber bullets, tear gas, slingshots, fireworks and other projectiles.
In many cases, reporters and photographers went out without adequate personal protective equipment being provided by their organizations. Most had not received safety training for media coverage in such circumstances. These factors created a higher risk of injury than should have been the case.
Many reporters and photographers have also suffered from stress and other effects on their mental wellbeing as a result of prolonged assignments in conflict areas that sometimes lasted days – a hidden issue that has not received sufficient industry attention.
Security forces’ attempt to block media
There were frequent incidents of law enforcement personnel tasked with overseeing security at protest sites obstructing members of the media, including barring photographers from taking pictures or denying them entry to certain areas. Curfew restrictions were also sometimes used as a justification for suppressing media operations.
There was a constant lack of understanding about the media’s role among law enforcement officers, whose more extreme efforts could be described as intimidating reporters in the field.
Despite efforts by representatives of professional media associations to raise these issues during discussions with senior commanders of the Royal Thai Police, misconduct and the lack of understanding by law enforcement officers has continued.
Using the emergency decree to control the media
Thailand’s 2021 amounted to a full year of living under emergency decree. The government initially insisted its use was only intended to address COVID-19 pandemic issues, but when criticism of the handling of the situation grew louder, there was resort to tougher measures. Announcement No. 29 prohibited the media from reporting or publishing any information that might “cause panic.” The announcement also infringed on the free flow of any information that might not suit the official agenda.
This was a blatant violation of freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution, and prompted an intense backlash from the media and civil society. Six media associations opposed the move, while a group of reporters filed a lawsuit against the order. Facing such stiff opposition, the prime minister eventually withdrew the order.
Official communication failures blamed on “fake news”
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Thai government agencies fuelled confusion by publishing contradictory information without a unified central voice, especially in life and death matters relating to the vaccination drive or hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients.
When called out for erroneous or contradictory information, government agencies often resorted to accusing the media of spreading “fake news,” even though they were merely reporting information presented by the government.
There were also instances of statements and news published by government agencies themselves being proved false.
COVID-19 pandemic prevented media scrutiny
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a more general loss of media freedom. Many government agencies close their doors to journalists during news conferences, whether at Government House, or in ministries and departments. This controlling, one-way communication by the authorities denied the media opportunities to scrutinize official statements, or to raise issues and questions in the public interest.
Transforming to digital watch dogs
Information technology continued to rapidly evolve in 2021, increasing capacity for real-time reporting and introducing diverse platforms that target younger audiences. In light of this, media executives and owners need a clear vision and readiness to adapt to sustainable change. Evolving technology must be embraced as a means to produce news that benefits society, defends the public interest, and reaches out to more diverse groups of news consumers.
Moving boundaries in uncertain times
Demands for reform of the monarchy under the constitution first raised by demonstrators in 2020, and the subsequent hardline official response, remained an extremely sensitive issue in 2021 – with no resolution yet in sight.
All media organizations face considerable difficulty covering the reform demands in light of Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the Computer Crimes Act, and regulations that enable the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) to punish the media it regulates. There are also cultural buffers in play in Thailand where any discussion of the monarchy continues to be taboo in some quarters.
These uncertainties lead much of the media to choose self-censorship for the sake of business survival and to avoid being targeted by extreme political groups. Meanwhile, many members of the public are calling on the media to report on this core topic in a straightforward, balanced manner. The issue is an ongoing problem that all media need to address collectively.
Photo credit: Header image by Laila Tahe, the first runner-up in the photo contest by the Thai Journalists Association to mark the 2021 World Press Freedom Day.