The danger in Failing to see harassment as purely political is that the issue is never adequately addressed
Harassment of the news media deserves condemnation no matter who is doing it. Being selective in criticising those behind the harassment only aggravates the problem. It is not just dictatorial national leaders who are prone to discrediting or seeking to silence critical and uncooperative news outlets. The harassment comes from everywhere and in various forms and shapes. In the United States, for so long a bastion of free speech, President Donald Trump has encouraged the repressive instincts of the conservative right with disturbing success.
In Thailand, a TV channel deemed overly critical of the military-led government is temporarily taken of the air, but not even that affront should be laid solely at the feet of “dictatorship”. The same has happened here before under a premier who touted himself a champion of democracy. The claim proved vacant when he shut down a cable channel because he disliked its coverage. This was done by applying pressure to the owner of the cable network, who briefed an executive at the channel on what upset the premier. The channel subsequently vanished from the air.
Under the same leader, the Anti-Money Laundering Office zeroed in on individual critical journalists, ordering commercial banks to disclose their assets because this democratically elected government had accused them of being part of a “triad” bent on breaching national security.
None of this is meant to imply that what has been happening under Prayut Chan-o-cha’s junta government can go without scrutiny or condemnation. Rather, we believe that selective criticism of such actions will only encourage those who would undermine media freedom to continue doing so over and over, no matter what stage of democracy we have reached.National leaders show their true colours in their reaction to criticism. Even politicians who wield power democratically can become dictatorial in their dealings with critical news media. Yet the media are a key element of democracy – the fourth estate protecting the public interest. Preventing them from pursuing their mission runs counter to the essential principles of freedom of information and freedom of expression.
Condemning what occurs under the military regime is in fact less important than making sure the same does not recur under civilian rule. There would be little point to civilian rule anyway if critical commentators were harassed while media cheerleaders were rewarded with state advertising money.
Dictators in the past sent men in uniform to newspaper offices to intimidate reporters and editors. Printing machines were sometimes chained up to ensure there would be no next edition. In the digital era, when newspapers are grappling for every baht of advertisement revenue, such means are no longer necessary. Governments can do so through their advertising budgets.
In Thailand’s divided political climate, there are naturally media outlets supporting and opposing the government. It is imperative that both survive to keep the healthy debate going and to keep the government in the spotlight and within control. The Prayut regime must try to understand why people loathe dictatorship. Its opponents have a tougher task than government supporters, not least because ballot boxes give the regime a false sense of justification, regardless of what it does to the media.
Prayut’s opponents should acknowledge that media abuse is a political matter, not a dictatorial one. Failing to recognise this will create more Voice TV situations with different victims.