Press freedom and access to information in Thailand following a military coup against caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appear to be normalizing one day into the military takeover, but an interruption in news flow on local and cable channels in the first hours of the putsch, and the military’s assertion of ownership over the airwaves, underscore an unstable and unpredictable environment for the press.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance is calling for vigilance.
On 19 September 2006, the Thai military staged a peaceful coup d’etat while Thaksin was abroad for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
International satellite-transmitted news service providers CNN and BBC were the first to break the story at around 10pm. CNN broadcast live footage of military vehicles on Bangkok roads and stationing themselves around the Government House, where the premier’s office is situated.
CNN also aired Thaksin’s brief counter-coup statement and interview with his deputy Surakiart Sathirathai who had accompanied him to the UN meeting. However, a couple of hours later, signals from CNN and BBC, and later CNBC and CCTV, were totally blocked in Thailand after the army seized control of the country’s satellite operations unit under Shin Sat, the company once owned by Thaksin.
The Administrative Reform Council formed by the coup leaders also took over the programming of most TV and radio stations, playing royalist songs with occasional interruptions in the form of updates of the situation as well as reassurances for the people.
The Council quickly said the situation was temporary. By 9AM on 20 September, all broadcasting programmes had resumed with the provisional authority’s green light. However, they were told to expect interruptions when there is a new announcement from the Council.
Access to local news websites is also back to normal following last night’s jammed situation due to a sudden surge in people trying to access the Internet for information.
As far as SEAPA has been able to gather, foreign and local journalists in Thailand have been free to report on the latest development. Newspaper operations are running without interference and at their usual output. There has been no attempt to block the press from covering the latest development, nor instructions to the media on what to report.
Still, SEAPA stresses that the overall situation in Thailand remains abnormal, and therefore unstable, especially for sensitive sectors like the media. The “normalizing situation” continues only at the tolerance of the ruling council. The broadcasting sector in particular remains vulnerable, as the army still owns the country’s airwaves, and all broadcast networks are essentially government operations. In addition, the army has stationed its troops at all TV stations since the coup.
In this light, SEAPA says there is likely to be more threats to press freedom as the ruling council moves to gain and maintain an upper hand in a likely media war against Thaksin. There are reports, for example, that the head of Mass Communication Orgainisation of Thailand (MCOT), which controls Channel 9, was detained for interrogation for ordering the broadcast of Thaksin’s counter coup speech on that channel. Also, controversial new media outfits recently propped up by Thaksin supporters, including websites and one satellite TV channel, are said to be bracing themselves for a targeted clampdown.