How activists and digital publishers are redefining media freedoms in Thailand

The protests against the king have created new threats to press freedom but also a thriving digital public sphere, Raksha Kumar reports
Protesters show the three-finger salute during a pro-democracy rally demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and reforms on the monarchy in Bangkok, Thailand November 21, 2020. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

Protesters at a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok, Thailand in November. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

Raksha Kumar

Every morning at 7:30 a majority of the 2.6 million YouTube subscribers of Voice TV tune into Talking Thailand, one of its most popular shows. The show lists out news of the day and is hosted by several analysts and specialists from across the country.

“When I get on to the MRT, I see so many passengers watching it on their phones,” says Anada Phara, a Bangkok-based marketing consultant, referring to Mass Rapid Transport, a Bangkok commuter train. "I see more and more people are glued to the news. Hopefully that means a better informed citizenry too.”

Ever since the pro-democracy protests began last year, people in Thailand have got used to a different kind of media. Both the medium and the message seem to have changed.

What used to be called non-traditional media is slowly capturing the mainstream space. Facebook Live and YouTube Live have become synonymous with pro-democracy protests. The more media coverage the protests got, the more people joined. And the more people joined, the more passionate the coverage seemed to be.

The protests have redefined media freedoms in Thailand. “Seven months ago, if you had told me that the Thai media would talk about the king’s wealth without holding back, I would have laughed at you,” says Voranai Vanijaka, founder of a new Thai news platform called Thisrupt. “What is happening right now was unimaginable.”

What the protestors want

Protestors want to limit the king’s power and wealth. They also want Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s resignation and the rewriting of the Constitution, to include greater democratic freedoms.

In October 2020, at the height of the pro-democracy protests, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency. Under this decree, the Thai Ministry of Digital Economy and Society asked a court to order Voice TV’s closure.  The lower court complied. Three other media organisations – including The Reporters and The Standard, both Thai language portals that mostly rely on Facebook for distribution, as well as news site Prachatai – also came under threat. Thai authorities claimed that the organisations had disseminated false information and were therefore guilty under the Computer Crime Act.

A day after the closure was granted, the Thai Criminal Court turned down the lower court’s order, saying that it was a breach of Article 35 of the Thai Constitution, which guarantees press freedom.

Demonstrations gained steam in August 2020, when 21-year-old student Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul openly challenged the monarchy. After that, there was no looking back.

In December, as last-minute Christmas shoppers throned malls in Bangkok, protesters marched around wearing crop tops to mock Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s current king. The crop top was a reference to pictures showing the king dressed in one. “We did not see this coming,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University who is on exile from Thailand. In early January 2021 demonstrations are still ongoing and are taking different forms.

The threat of self-censorship

Thailand is one of the few countries in the world with a very strict lese majeste law. Anyone who criticises the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent could be jailed for up to 15 years.

In Thailand, the king is a Constitutional monarch only in name. Unlike the British or the Spanish royal families, Thai monarchs wield more power than elected governments. “More than Buddhism, worship of the monarch is our religion,” writes Thai-American author Sunisa Manning

Speaking to the BBC, Tamara Loos, professor of History in South East Asian studies at Cornell University, explained that Thailand was the only South East Asian country to escape European colonial rule. Thai monarchs were credited for protecting the country’s independence. Therefore it was easy to associate the king as the protector and the father of the nation. “Thai citizens are taught that they owe their very survival as a free nation to their kings, which makes it much more difficult to challenge anything the king does,” she said. 

This perception has impacted news coverage. Thai news organisations have most often  steered clear of questioning the monarchy. To an extent, said professor Pavin, questioning of the government or even the military will be tolerated by the establishment, but not the monarchy.

This mindset may be starting to crumble. People were shocked when mainstream media began to self-censor their coverage of the protests, explains Daniel Bastard, Head of Asia-Pacific Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). What people saw on their television sets was different from what they saw on their mobile screens. This anger created a space for Voice TV and for other independent media websites. 

While Voice TV began streaming the protests live on YouTube and Facebook, websites like Prachatai began writing vociferously about the protests and about the issues protestors were raising.

When protests begun at several universities in February 2020, not a single television station covered them, according to Rittikorn Mahakhachabhorn, Editor-in-Chief of Voice TV. “They were afraid they would violate some of [Thai regulator] NBTC's rules. We reported about the protests regularly ever since,” he says. Voice TV broadcasts 24 hours on YouTube, with a staff of about 160 people.  

The audience base for Facebook Live has also broadened in Thailand, where Facebook has close to 53 million users, or about 76.7% of its population. The rise of news audiences on these platforms forced the mainstream media to change their messaging too.

Small and big news organisations in Thailand have now lowered their guard. Five years ago, news site Prachatai was hauled up for not deleting a defamatory comment by one of its readers fast enough. Today most of the comments on news websites and social media pages are unregulated. This has led professor Pavin to believe that Thailand, placed 140th on RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, is on the verge of change. “In order to turn from black to white, it has to become grey first,” he says. 

New threats to press freedom

These changes have created new ways of state crackdowns too. 

“When activism went on social media, that became the battlefield,” says professor Pavin. “Therefore, the authorities began to use the Computer Crime Act more and more. It became the substitute to the [lese majeste] law.”

Human Rights Watch says that the Computer Crime Act gives “overly broad powers to the government to restrict free speech, enforce surveillance and censorship, and retaliate against activists.” The act is regularly applied to journalists. In September 2017, British journalist Jonathan Head, a BBC correspondent, was charged under the law. 

In October, Voice TV and three other online media outlets and a Facebook page were targeted on the grounds that they were violating the Computer Crime Act.

Although the law is not new, it was amended in 2016 to give room to the government to prosecute anything they designate as “false” or “distorted” information. In effect, the law is used now to undermine the credibility of online news platforms that are critical of the government.

The Computer Crime Act has drawn heavy criticism from human rights groups. “Under this draconian law, Internet users will have to look over their shoulders when going online,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “The Thai military government has now given itself sweeping power to monitor, search, and acquire information, invading people’s privacy on a massive scale.”

The old threats didn't disappear either.

The lese majeste law had not been used since 2017. Even in June 2020, Prime Minister Prayut confirmed that the king had asked that the law not to be used. However, in November, owing to the escalation in protests, the lese-majeste law was used against 12 protestors for the first time in years.

Now, both the lese majeste law and the Computer Crime Act are used to crackdown on dissent. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, an advocacy organisation, said at least 81 protesters were arrested since the state of emergency was declared.

Sedition is another law that has been repeatedly used to curb press freedom. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a columnist and senior staff writer for Khaosod English, has been detained several times by the military and has several cases of sedition against him, some of them still pending, for Facebook posts where he spoke about the Prime Minister’s handling of the 2017 floods.

Until now, there hasn’t been any large-scale violence against journalists or protesters, and the news media has not suffered large-scale persecution from the government as much as the activists have, said Vorinai, founder of Thisrupt. “The reaction by security forces has been relatively peaceful,” agreed RSF’s Bastard, “unlike the 2010 violence between the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts.” 

The red-shirts broadly supported the deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. They now support his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The yellow-shirts represent those opposed to Thaksin.

How independent are digital publishers?

In such a polarised society, how independent can a news outlet be if it is owned by a political leader? Voice TV is partly-owned by Thaksin and his sister Yingluck.

Despite this association, Voice TV has gained credibility among the general public and among the intellectuals by including a variety of voices in their coverage. “Being independent is an essential way to gain that reliability,” said Editor-in-Chief Rittikorn.

The protests seemed to diversify the voices of those represented in the news media. People from various backgrounds and ethnicities now get to broadcast their viewpoints to the country. This has had an effect on journalism. “Our newsroom is unlike any other. It has low to none hierarchy, and this allows all the staff to express ideas or make comments. We support freedom of speech 100%, so we start from within our newsroom,” said Rittikorn. 

What was earlier ‘opposition media’ is now 'protest media', explains Bastard from RSF. “Voice TV and other such news platforms have more editorial freedom now and do not merely oppose those in power,” he says. The main reason why platforms like Voice TV have gained credibility is because they are amplifying voices that seek systemic changes and not just changes in the regime. 

While those working in mainstream Thai language media are still a bit rigid, English language journalists get some leeway, says columnist Rojanaphruk. However, “they may take some time to have an impact as well,” he observes. 

The most prominent digital voices in English are Khaosod English, Thisrupt, Thai Enquirer, Prachatai  and The Isaan Record. “We want to talk about Thailand to the world,” said Voranai of Thisrupt, who has been an English language journalist for 20 years.

He started Thisrupt in March 2020 with his own money. “We don’t do news updates or breaking news, and we prefer the video format,” he says.  Voranai calls Facebook Live ‘the real deal’. But many young media entrepreneurs wonder how to monetise this format. At the moment, he is trying to make money by posting videos on Facebook and YouTube. Outlets which do not want to rely on funding from political players or large companies face the same challenges as other news sites worldwide. 

Facebook comes with its set of drawbacks. Professor Pavin manages a private Facebook group called Royalist Marketplace, which engages in open criticism of the Thai monarchy. In August 2020, a previous version was blocked by Facebook after the Thai government threatened the company with legal action. 

“Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” Facebook said in a statement back then. The company said it would legally challenge the Thai government’s request. At the time of this writing, this hasn't happened. 

After the ban, professor Pavin started a new group. It's gathered almost 2.3 million people within days, more than double the audience of the first group. “I am my own media. Each person is his or her own media,” says Pavin, who says he founded the groups to broadcast his views.

Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist, with a specific focus on human rights. Since 2011, she has reported from 12 countries across the world for outlets such as 'The New York Times', BBC, the 'Guardian', 'TIME', 'South China Morning Post' and 'The Hindu'. Samples of her work can be found here.