Media must be wary of losing its voice

Looking at the blank screen that has replaced Voice TV’s programmes makes me feel like I’ve taken a time machine back to the day the military took power in 2014, when every channel was temporarily washed over with military logos.

Almost three years have passed but we do not seem to have made much progress. The state’s attempts to control the media — print, electronic or digital — are just as strong now as they were then.

But it’s Voice TV, a digital TV station belonging to the Shinawatra family, that has been hit the hardest with several suspension orders.

The latest punishment imposed on the channel by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) is linked to three programmes it claims presented “inappropriate content that could lead to social division”.

This included a scoop related to the extrajudicial killing earlier this month of an ethnic rights activist in Chiang Mai, who was alleged to have been part of a narcotics gang. The other two programmes covered the use of Section 44 in the interim charter in handling the Wat Phra Dhammakaya case, and the move to collect 16 billion baht in tax from ex-PM Thaksin Shinwatra over the sale of his Shin Corp shares.

The latest crackdown soon gave rise to a new nickname for the troubled station on social media: “Voice(less)”.

It should be noted that other media channels have been able to escape the regime’s draconian powers (so far) because they adhere to some form of self-censorship. What saddens me is that these special powers have been so readily accepted despite the regime stirring up hatred toward elected politicians.

As members of the media, we know our job can be challenging.

For example, last year a number of people were charged with violating the Referendum Act. This act was issued to curb criticism of the government as pro-democracy activists were planning to stage a campaign about the draft charter that was set to go up for a public vote on Aug 7.

I recall our team of journalists had no idea how far we could criticise the draft constitution without getting into trouble. Shortly after we met to discuss the matter, Taweesak Kerdpoka, a reporter from the online website Prachatai, was arrested on June 10 while travelling with three members of the New Democracy Movement to cover their activities in Ratchaburi.

Police discovered “Vote No” stickers and flyers in the vehicle. Mr Taweesak was charged with violating the Referendum Act despite the fact he was on a journalistic assignment.

“I’m not afraid. But I’m angry,” he wrote on Prachatai’s website. “I’m angry that every time government leaders claim to restore democracy to the country, in fact, they do completely the opposite.”

Later that year, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a member of the student activist group Dao Din, was thrown in jail after sharing on his Facebook page a BBC Thai article that served as a biography of the new monarch. He was charged with lese majeste and violating the Computer Crime Act.

Mr Jatupat and his Dao Din group first gained public recognition back in 2014 when they were arrested for flashing an anti-coup gesture in the face of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was giving a speech in Khon Kaen at the time.

After their release, the activists never stopped campaigning and got into trouble with the state several times.

On June 25, 2015, Thai PBS broadcast a profile of Dao Din and its editors were summoned by the NBTC out of fear the programme could cause more conflict and violate the code of the National Council for Peace and Order.

As I go further back in time the images pile up: Blank TV screens, curfews, the summoning of media editors.

Then on May 20, 2014, the army invoked martial law and temporarily suspended media outlets so that “people can get accurate information [about matters] that may affect peace and order in the country”.

This was about six months after the People’s Democratic Reform Committee staged a shut-down campaign against the Pheu Thai government, and two days before army chief Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup.

Some people were relieved as this put an end to all the street protests. But little were they aware that it was the start of the new era of curbed freedom of expression.

As I look at that blank screen today, I feel overwhelmed by a feeling of not one but multiple Big Brothers watching over us. Moreover, I fear worse is yet to come as the regime is pushing for a new bill to more strongly regulate the media. As such, this is one fight we must see through to the end.

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