Thailand's junta has effectively forced a German foundation to cancel a forum discussing new restrictions on the media, scheduled to be held Friday in Bangkok, raising concerns among journalists and right advocates about the junta’s efforts to curtail press freedom and political dissent in what has long been a relatively open society in the region.
The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a foundation that has headquarters in headquartered in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, that promotes social democracy worldwide, said it would comply with a request from the junta — also known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) — to cancel the forum, which was to feature a panel discussion and a presentation about a study on media freedom in Thailand.
"We received a call from the government asking us to postpone the event indefinitely because of the sensitive nature of the topic and the political climate within the country,” Thatsanavanh Banchong, the foundation's media and civic education officer, told the Bangkok Post.
The military junta toppled Thailand’s elected government in May 2014 and has imposed a host of new restrictions on the media, including shutting down certain websites and radio stations in the name of national security, since taking control. Col. Winthai Suvaree, a spokesman for the junta, said the event’s organizers should have provided the authorities with information about the event in advance. Because they didn't, Suvaree said, the foundation was asked to postpone the event. "We are still in a sensitive time," he said.
Thai journalists say that the decision is a worrying sign about the future of free expression in the country. "This is the launch of an academic work on the media that the NCPO should think about and check carefully, said Manop Thip-osod, a spokesman for the Thai Journalists Association, which was a co-sponsor of Friday’s event. “To block such an event does not bode well for the country's image, which is being monitored by the international community."
Many international media organizations use Thailand as a base for operations in the region, rather than countries such as Singapore or China that routinely stifle reporting on politics.
Thailand's generals took over last May, ending months of protests in Bangkok against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically elected government that led to her ouster. An uneasy calm has since returned to the streets, but rights groups warn that peace has been paid for with the severe curtailment of basic liberties.
Media freedom organizations say self-censorship and censorship enforced by authorities have dramatically increased under martial law, with political gatherings and criticism of the coup forbidden.
In an annual report this week by U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, Thailand was judged to have fallen into the category of "Not Free" from a designation of "Partly Free" a year earlier. The group said Thailand was especially weak in political rights and civil liberties. Thai officials have shrugged off such criticism, saying that foreigners do not understand Thailand and that strong measures are needed to eliminate corruption from politics in order to strengthen democracy.
Junta chief and premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha issued a clear warning Thursday to critics. "Whoever comes out and criticizes (the junta), they will be summoned," he said at a press conference, apparently growing increasingly agitated under reporters’ questions. "I am not autocratic. Why don't people understand and keep challenging me?"
While the junta has indicated that it considers almost any criticism of its actions to be potentially destabilizing, such strong reactions are usually reserved for cases of criticism of the Thai monarchy — which has for years been the only major official taboo for journalists covering the nation’s politics.
Criticism of the monarchy is punishable by three to 15 years in prison under Thailand's longstanding lèse majesté law. After last May's coup, the junta began prosecuting such cases in military courts, with no avenue for appeal. The growing number of such cases, frequently involving Internet postings, has drawn great concern from local and international rights defenders.
The junta's critics believe it is using those cases to silence the powerful political machine of Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in 2006. Thaksin remains widely popular in Thailand's rural and economically struggling north and northeast, but he faces strong opposition by élites in Bangkok and lives abroad in self-imposed exile.
Separately, the junta summoned members of the ousted government who criticized its recent actions against Yingluck — barring her from political office for five years and threatening her with criminal prosecution for a rice subsidy policy —to report to military authorities for an "attitude adjustment."
According to a 2014 Amnesty International report, some of those who received these summonses were told “the coup was the right action” and “were asked to communicate to both the military and general public that they then have already agree with the coup as a precondition prior to their discharge.” About 90 percent of those summoned, the report said, were academics, journalists and people connected to the protest movement or the former government.
Members of the interim cabinet installed by the junta have said elections are not expected until 2016.
Al Jazeera and wire services