SEAPA Statement on the Declaration of Martial law in Thailand
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) expresses gravest concern over the Royal Thai Army’s imposition of martial law yesterday across Thailand, particularly that it has targeted the media and freedom of expression.
People in the region woke up to news that the commander of the Thai army announced at 3:00 a.m. that they declared Martial Law to take control of the situation in order to prevent violence and restore peace and order. This action has been long anticipated in Thai politics, currently locked in a seven-month long political impasse that has seen 28 deaths, hundreds injured, failed parliamentary elections and an ousted prime minister.
The declaration puts the military in effective control over the civilian government, as it gives the former virtually unlimited powers to control the situation, and effectively suspend civil rights guarantees in the constitution.
At the end of the first day of martial law, orders from the Peace and Order Maintaining Command (POMC) have been chillingly focused on the media and free expression.
Five out of 12 Martial Law orders from the POMC directly impact media freedom and freedom of expression. Order Numbers 3, 6,7,8, and 9 include prohibiting distorted and inciting news and information of all forms (document, photo, publication and broadcast) in all media, or those which can cause fear and misunderstanding of the military’s action. The prohibitions include distributing, selling and publishing such content.
Army Order No. 9, in particular is a clampdown on editorial independence, banning print and broadcast media from carrying interviews with former government officials, academics and civil society who might “confuse society or provoke violence” or cause opposition to martial law.
Order No. 8 meanwhile asked cooperation from internet service providers to suspend services for users that may provoke violence, or cause opposition to the POMC and also empowers the POMC to block service providers if such content remains, and also to take legal action against the offenders.
By 10 a.m. of 20 May, soldiers had been deployed at media offices and are in newsrooms to enforce closures and monitor content. In all, POMC had ordered the closure of 14 cable and satellite television channels, and an unspecified number of communityradio stations.
In the context of the highly volatile political deadlock, shutting down media channels and banning critical commentary on the military’s action and the political situation is misdirected and an overreaction that sends the opposite message that the Army has intended. The clampdown on media has used force to silence channels of information and public opinion out of fear. It also seriously threatens the right of citizens to freedom of opinion and expression and access to information necessary to exercise political participation in these critical times.
The shutdown of these channels—though highly politicized and in the control of political protagonists—has targeted the relatively newer channels of information that has represented the recent expansion of media freedoms in Thailand, away from the docile mainstream print media and the state or army controlled broadcast media. The move to shutter this class of broadcast media conveniently avoided members of the mainstream media associations.
The martial law authority has seemingly focused on suppressing criticism of the Army’s act of the declaration martial law, and not on containing inciting and polarizing speech that fuel violence and conflict. There could have been a number of intermediate steps for the military to take in order to contain insightful or hateful speech over the media, but shutting down entire stations regardless of programming content can only be described as an overkill.
That the military has not used its full Martial Law powers—such as imposing curfew, ordering massed protesters from both sides to disperse, or detaining or gagging key leaders of these rallies—indicates that there is still some nuancing in declaration of martial law as response to the political crisis. They have emphasized that the imposition is “not a coup” and that the 2007 Constitution is still in force and people should act ‘as normal’.
SEAPA calls upon the army to respect civil liberties and the media freedoms protected under Section 45 of the Constitution, in exercising the martial law powers. We reiterate that any limitation on these rights must follow constitutional and international norms of necessity, specificity and proportionality. Action must be limited to the declaration’s objectives, which is containing the sporadic violence and preventing confrontation between pro- and anti-government demonstrators.
SEAPA views the presence of soldiers in media outlets and in newsrooms as a direct use of force to suppress the role of media to provide information based on their editorial prerogatives, even as we are fully aware of the polarization within the Thai media and its impact on the crisis.
We urge the martial law authorities that Army units deployed in media outlets be withdrawn and orders for the suspension of operations of media establishments be revoked immediately to allow these to resume normal operations.
The POMC must also keep their hands off social media as citizens use it as a direct channel of opinion and expression.
Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI)
Melinda Quintos de Jesus
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)
Center for Independent Journalism Malaysia
Institut Studi Arus Informasi Indonesia (ISAI)
Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)
Thai Journalists Association (TJA)