The Thai Journalists Association wound up the year by issuing a depressing statement. It rated 2017 as yet another year where the free press was regulated and intimidated by the military government. The TJA said the regime hinders the media by restricting freedom of expression. And it says this causes public harm by not allowing examination and by barring criticism of the junta, collectively and individually.
The TJA is correct on all points. Its brief report, however, could be expanded. At present, and not for the first time, Thailand once again is surrounded by media-hostile countries. It is similar to, yet different from any in recent times. For one thing, over the past few decades Thailand has generally been the only country in the group with a reliably free press. Now it is not.
But the news is worse. Myanmar and Cambodia, where the media has recently enjoyed expanding freedom, have turned around and once again are world-class threats to freedom of the press. The dictator Hun Sen has treated both the loyal political opposition and the press cruelly, literally crushing them and putting them out of business. Radio stations and newspapers showing even a touch independence, including the English-language Cambodia Daily, have been shuttered.
Myanmar’s case is worse. That country now operates under a shadowy regime. It includes the elected Aung San Suu Kyi, the Ministry of Defence and the violent and unaccountable tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. That government’s attitude to its own cowed and tame press and to foreign journalists is tainted and out of control because of the country’s treatment of the Rohingya people.
Left, the families of jailed Myanmar nationals and Reuters news agency journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo speak with the media on Friday. On the same day, Malaysian reporter Mok Choy Lin (top right) and Singaporean cameraman Lau Hon Meng of Turkish Radio and Television were freed after two months and two days in prison awaiting trial on charges that were dropped. (Agency photos)
That attitude and the government actions are indefensible. On Friday, Myanmar released two journalists employed by Turkey’s TRT World TV station, and their interpreter. Cameraman Lau Hon Meng of Singapore and Malaysian reporter Mok Choy Lin were freed, along with their aide and local journalist Aung Naing Soe after all were imprisoned for two months and two days. Meanwhile, Myanmar nationals Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who work for the London-based Reuters news agency, were arrested. They have been held, imprisoned, for three weeks as of today, with no hope of immediate freedom.
The military and Ms Suu Kyi’s government filed formal charges in both cases. But they were a cover-up. Myanmar and world press know full well the real charge is that all four journalists were arrested for getting close to Rakhine state, to report on the situation of the Rohingya. The UN calls it “a classic case of ethnic cleansing”. Many believe it is genocide. The important thing here is that the Myanmar regime considers it an embarrassment. It will seize and imprison any media workers it can who try to inform the region and the world of the plight of the Rohingya.
The Bangkok government hasn’t gone so far as the neighbours — yet. But with an election looming, preceded by political freedom, the military’s already stated threats to reporting that “goes too far” is a danger sign. The Ministry of Defence and the junta itself have shown a tendency, if not enthusiasm, for trying to crush and intimidate reporting with overuse of criminal defamation charges.
Just as democracy can never exist without free, fair elections, so there cannot be freedom without an unfettered press. As the TJA pointed out, the 2014 edict that forbids excessive criticism of the NCPO is a major impediment to effective reporting.
More to the point, such decrees are illegal under the regime’s own constitution. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government need to make it clear that the charter is the supreme law of the land. In order for the country to function, the press must be able to practise, in order to make government accountable to the public.