The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) expresses concern over the declaration of a State of Emergency in Bangkok, particularly in how the broad powers granted the military under such a declaration could render the free press and freedom of expression vulnerable to political and security objectives.
Less than 24 hours since Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva ordered placing the Thai capital under a State of Emergency, the government has blocked one satellite channel sympathetic to protesters, and some political oriented websites now deemed a threat to national security. Among those blocked websites is Prachatai.com, which is in fact an independent online news website that is known to accommodate a diversity of information and commentary on various topics.
The Thai Journalists Association, a founding member of SEAPA, and the Thailand Cable TV Association have called the actions unconstitutional and in violation of Thais' rights to press freedom and access to information.
While the State of Emergency Law grants government the power to censor, Article 45 of the 2007 Constitution states in part that "the closure of a newspaper or other mass media business in deprivation of the liberties guaranteed under this section shall not be made".
SEAPA shares in the Thai media groups' deep concern for the larger environment for free expression.
The actions taken against both a political station on the one hand, and an independent news operation on another, demonstrates the dangerous latitude the Thai government is allowing itself in determining what can be tolerated and what should be squelched on its claimed path to normalcy.
A free press must be allowed -- through independence, diversity, or both -- to provide platforms for open, fearless discussions, and even debate. The broad powers granted under a State of Emergency (including power to ban public gatherings of more than five people, censor and ban media from disseminating news deemed inimical to national security and order, and the detention of people without charge for up to 30 days) grant the government and military a blunt weapon that could harm the overall environment for free expression.
If it is left to government and the military to determine what is "good" and "bad" news, commentary, or information, a diversity of views and opinions will inevitably be compromised. As the TJA and TCTVA notes: "The government claimed the blockade of the transmission and blockade of access to the website were done to prevent distortion of information and prevent dissemination of false information to the public. But the government continued to use state-owned radio and TV station to present one-sided information. The government also allowed other radio stations and another satellite TV to present similar content of state media, which could lead to further rifts in the society."
Indeed, there will be the risk of criminalizing legitimate opinion and debate, which in turn may only aggravate tensions and heighten perceptions of bias, and ironically lead to further disenchantment and division.
SEAPA urges the Thai authorities--and all clashing parties to the current crisis--to spare the media from the prospect of ending up as collateral damage in the unfolding story. Even as the TJA is correct in reminding that the crisis and the Thai people deserve the most responsible and ethical news and commentary that independent media can offer, all sides to the ongoing crisis have an interest in ensuring an environment where independent, diverse, and even opposing views are respected, tolerated, and protected.
SEAPA is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow if Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism; the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association; and the network's Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism.