Never before have people's messages about the monarchy, be they satirical or direct, substantial demands for monarchy reform, appeared widely in protests countrywide. But these messages do not make it into the mainstream media due to legal and moral fears.
The speech of human rights lawyer Anon Nampa calling for the monarchy reform at the 3 August protest was the first time in more than a decade that problems about the monarchy had been publicly addressed. The people's dissatisfaction about the monarch’s lifestyle is also emerging since the mass protest on 18 July.
However the media mostly reported only summaries, or even nothing, about the demands that can be related to the monarchy. According to those in media circles, this kind of systematic censorship has been around for a long time.
30 years of silence
“During the past 30 years, the monarchy has been talked about only in terms of admiring veneration. The mainstream TV, radio and press will all talk from a perspective of celebration, admiration, and veneration. Mainly, the mainstream mass media cooperates with the state, and writes for the state agenda in terms of the monarchy. There is not even any mention of any problems, even of legal technicalities.”
Supalak Ganjanakhundee, former editor of the now-defunct Thai daily newspaper The Nation, said the Thai media have never reported about the monarchy negatively or even addressed issues directly. After the 2006 and 2014 coups, even the word ‘monarchy’ was not allowed to be in the news.
“When (former Princess) Ubolratana became a candidate (for Prime Minister), we also wrote about it fully. But the next day, Chai Bunnag (owner of the Nation Multimedia Group) himself ordered that the Ubolratana story must stop there, and ordered us not write any more, from whatever perspective. Even the statement from Ubolratana was not allowed to be published. That was a clear order from Chai Bunnag,” said Supalak.
The Ubolratana incident sparked huge political uncertainty when she accepted a request from the Thai Raksa Chart Party (TRC) to stand as candidate for PM in February 2019, the first time in Thai political history that a high-ranking member of the royal family had sought a political position.
Even though this was legally legitimate after she surrendered her royal titles in 1972, her candidacy ended within 24 hours when King Rama X issued a royal command rejecting her action. TRC was later dissolved by the Constitutional Court for ‘undermining the constitutional monarchy’.
During these decades, the mainstream media addressed the monarchy straightforwardly only once. In 2013, the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS), a state-sponsored media outlet, broadcast the Top Jot (Addressing the Questions) programme, a series of interviews about monarchy reform and political reconciliation.
The programme invited guests from both the conservative and liberal sides, including Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a famous academic, now in exile, who has studied the monarchy for a long time.
The series was withdrawn by Thai PBS under pressure from conservative audiences and its own board members after the broadcasts.
These rare reports were taking place when people were starting to talk about monarchy issues in public and parliament, which led to civil society demands to abolish the lèse majesté law, Section 112 of the Criminal Code.
This trend was met with harsh prosecution of anyone who raised questions about the monarchy. The foreign media also reported a lot about the monarchy's role in politics.
Censorship from fear of legal and financial backlash
Since the 2014 coup, the state intervention against Voice TV can be seen as the very definition of censorship. As the only digital TV station to criticize the junta government, it faced more than 21 interventions, in the form of warnings, consultations or temporary whole-station shutdowns.
Pinpaka Ngamsom, editor of Voice TV and Voice Online, said Voice TV was damaged by these interventions in terms of profit and human resources. It is one of the reasons that Voice TV decided to cancel its expensive digital TV license and return to operating as a satellite TV channel.
Pinpaka said the lèse majesté law is an ironclad rule for Voice TV in reporting about the monarchy. Content that criticizes it must only be fact and not express hostility to the monarchy. Live streaming content will be managed by executive board decision.
Protests that have lately included speeches about the monarchy have been livestreamed. Many TV stations decided to stop the livestreaming before certain speakers appeared. Voice TV decided to hide a video of the 3 August protest which included Anon’s first speech about monarchy reform.
She said the censorship policy is not difficult to put into practice. However, it does hurt feelings of journalistic pride.
“In terms of feelings or professional pride, working under this kind of atmosphere actually goes against professional ethics that the media should insist on reporting the facts that have been checked and are believable as the truth. But under an atmosphere like this, principles are not enough to protect the worker,” said Pinpaka.
A national-level media journalist who requested anonymity said his news agency reported about the monarchy only from official sources. The content must be what it is sent by officials, word for word.
He said principally there are agencies of the state and the palace that monitor the media. However, the media practically self-censors itself before these bodies are able to do their work. Censorship begins at the executive level down to the editorial team. This kind of operation allows the media to carry on their businesses without being targeted.
However, he said the negative impact lies with the audience who are unable to access information about the monarchy via the media.
“Understand that media these days is a business. It is not like media in the old days which had only 50-100 staff and they would charge ahead, to the death. But these days all the media that I look at have the characteristics of a business. They have hundreds and thousands of staff. They have their own printing press. They have interests to take care of. These interests may be the way of thinking in the media of how to operate without the business being affected,” said the journalist.
He also believes that it will take longer to change censorship within the media than the way people raised the ceiling to express their opinions about the monarchy.
Internet disrupts censorship
Supalak said the increasing roles of the internet and social media have made media censorship less effective. Online media that is not subject to a similar level of state regulation is able to provide content about the monarchy. The mainstream media will miss the train of change if they continue to stay quiet.
“Nobody cares whether the mainstream media covers this story or not. We know the story about Anon Nampa’s speech from social media, from conversations. People recorded the video clip and sent it privately. Censorship becomes something that has no meaning because little of the scope of censorship remains and that is the mainstream and state media, newspapers and radio. Many times more people use social media than mainstream media.
“If we take social media as a kind of media, mainstream media is gradually becoming something very small and less meaningful. We don’t have to wait for any TV channel to broadcast Anon’s speech; we can follow it on YouTube. The general public does not lack information,” said Supalak.
Time to address the ‘elephant in the room’
Supalak said a conversation addressing issues of the monarchy should already be happening in Thai society, issues like proper position of the monarchy in a constitutional monarchy regime. Or even the easiest question, about why does the constitution allow the king to reside outside the country without appointing a regent, should be asked.
“It is time for Thai society to talk about these issues properly. It is not that Thai society never talks about this. It must be addressed. The world has changed so much. Some basic questions cannot be answered but should be answered.
“The huge budget spending, is it worth it or not at a time when we are facing economic problems? The expense of worshipping the monarchy may not be necessary,” said Supalak.