Thailand’s traditional media faces new challenges as protests touch on taboo topics

The hashtag #CondemnMedia (#ประณามสื่อ) is being used by Thai netizens have become frustrated with Thai media for their ongoing silence even though pro-democracy student activists continue to risk arrest and intimidation.

This came after activists blatantly brought up taboo topics during an anti-government rally at Thammasat University last week and again during the rally on Sunday at the Democracy Monument.

Public disappointment in the local press has been accumulating as several Thais view that the Thai press seemingly places insufficient importance on reporting youth protests against the government.

Generally, the local media cover only rallies’ atmosphere and, at best, mention the three requests to the Thai government: to stop menacing citizens, to amend the Constitution and to dissolve the parliament, but not the 10-point demanded by the students. Although some media went live on their online platforms during the protests, they suddenly ceased live stream when speakers broached uncomfortable topics.

Some Thai media even allocate larger space for the reports about key Thai politicians or prominent figures expressing concern, dissatisfaction, or warning protesters if their actions have gone too far.

A large number of Thai netizens, therefore, have taken to the web to criticize the local press for choosing to play it safe or flatter the regime rather than be brave and pursue their professional ethics and stand by the people.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that this is the most challenging time that the Thai press has ever encountered.

The new normal

“This is the first time in my life I see this topic talked out on the street,” said Supalak Ganjanakhundee, the former editor-in-chief of an English-language newspaper The Nation, in an urgent online discussion ‘Media and Protest Situation’ by a media watchdog group ‘Media Inside Out.’ 

“I think journalists in my generation never had a thought that we had to report news about the royal institution as something that was discussed at the rally.” 

Thapanee Eadsrichai, a well-known field reporter of a TV news program ‘Khao Sam Miti’ on Channel 3HD and a founder of an online news platform ‘The Reporters’, also said in the same discussion: “I was also shocked. I mean I had never expected to hear this issue being discussed on the stage amid the crowd like that.”

She added that “once I listened to the students’ declaration, I asked myself ‘in what way can I report it?’”  

The student protest leaders may realize that their very open discussion on the institution will put them in danger of being jailed, but they have a view that at least they have helped in ‘raising the ceiling,’ which means that their actions would encourage broader discussionS in Thai society. 

“All journalists have a spirit and conscious. They all have already performed their duties of reporting an incident, but whether that news can be reported or not is up to the decision of the organizations they are working for,” said Thapanee.

She explained further that the mainstream press were working under intense pressure and needed to take into account their organization structures and the social context along with media-regulating laws when reporting a story.

“No matter what happened in society, journalists must report. That is our duty. Nevertheless, whether a topic can be said legally or not needs to be consulted with many lawyers. Journalists have never had knowledge relating to this before. We were also shocked at what had happened and afraid we could infringe the laws,” said Thapanee.

According to Section 37 of Broadcasting and Television Business Act B.E.2551, The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has the authorization to issue an immediate order to temporarily suspend a TV or radio program that it deems in violation of lese majesty laws.

If they are eventually found guilty, NBTC can exercise its power to suspend or even revoke the TV or radio license.

Meanwhile, online platforms are curbed by the Computer Crime Act B.E.2560 under the regulation of the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. The ministry has the power to file a petition to the court to ban inappropriate online content and also impose a fine of up to 60,000 baht, at least five years of imprisonment or both.

Thai publications can and have paid a very high price for their courage to break one of the strictest taboos in Thai society – and, currently, they are not in any position to bear this expensive cost. 

A number of local media outlets, especially those on traditional platforms, have been undergoing tough financial situations for years. Online media is the main factor causing several traditional media publications to suffer huge losses of audiences and subsequently revenues. 

News of Thai media companies struggling to survive by tightening belts, downsizing organizations, laying employees off, and at worst, shutting down businesses have appeared frequently in business news sections for the last half decade.

In this difficult situation, the Thai press thereby would rather not take a risk that could exacerbate themselves further. 

Alternative Media

While mainstream media cannot fully report on these protests at this moment, sub-stream media particularly those on social media platforms have apparently taken over this duty. Thai people can acquire all the information raised at the demonstrations via live streams from Facebook fan pages of the rally organizers or accounts of individuals on the scene.

Disseminating information undermining the institution online is obviously against the Thai laws; however, unlike traditional media platforms, social media is difficult to be monitored and censored.

The rise of social media has provided Thais with convenient access to news and information that could be undesirable to the regime as well as more space to express their opinions openly in spite of being illicit. No longer do they need to rely on mainstream media.

It cannot be denied that mainstream media has gradually been losing its status as the first-hand news provider to social media over the years.

“We have to try ‘pushing the limit’ to enhance space for rational discussion,” said Supalak. “It is time that the media mention issues of public interest. Media that do not speak to those issues may fall off the stage.”

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