Media freedom has taken a hit, and soul-searching starts anew
There are few issues more slippery than “media responsibility”. When the Thai media were in full swing ideologically, albeit divided into acrimonious “pro-yellow” and “pro-red” camps, the problem was how to get them to “tone down” just a bit. After the Thai military staged yet another coup last month, things returned to the “no freedom” issue. And even the issue of “no freedom” is divisive, because the media clampdown by the coup makers does not attract only criticism.
Many people said the Thai media had it coming. TV stations, especially those closely identifying themselves with the political camps, had been extremely bold to say the least. Bluesky broadcast anti-Thaksin rallies in a no-holds-barred, uncut manner. Asia Updates did not censor anyone calling Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban “animals”. Were the stations abusing media freedom? We have to use our own judgement on that, but one thing was certain: If peace was what was needed, both Bluesky and Asia Update were not helping.
The coup makers incurred the wrath of freedom advocates with a virtually absolute ban on TV immediately after the coup. The ban was relaxed after two days but hardcore stations have remained blacked out. Ever since the coup, every media organisation has faced its own problems. Some exercised “self-restraints” to the dismay of journalists not familiar with strong-handed censorship. To others, it was more than just dismay, as journalists openly challenged their employers in trying to get as much information to their audiences as possible.
On the social media, opinions have been divided. Some think the clampdown is a price to pay, as the pre-coup environment would never make Thais cool down and reflect and the acrimony was threatening to deteriorate into something worse. Others see a familiar pattern of what “absolute powers” can do. It has been a debate on the pros and cons of free but divisive information and controlled information that may or may not help restore the political peace. The media had not been accountable, the pro-clampdown side said. But they had been free, the other camp argued, and free media sooner or later would balance things out.
To a certain extent, the “freedom of expression” has gone underground. Political debate may not be as raucous as before but it is still simmering under the surface. The coup has highlighted the issue of free speeches, whether it’s for better or for worse. Again, “responsibility” is being discussed and pitted against absolute freedom. Even the rumoured attempt to temporarily ban Facebook has sent online threads going up in flames.
The coup and the environment it created are posing a fresh challenge, not just on journalists but also on the public whose views on freedom and responsibility have become more complicated. This is very much different from the old days when dictatorial governments sent troops to media organisations and to chain their printing machines. This is the time when grey is the more prevalent colour than black or white, politically speaking.
Some media figures have been summoned and detained by the coup makers, who certainly have more to prove than the people they have cracked down on. After all, even pro-coup public patience will have its limits. The line between “This is a price to pay” and “This has gone too far” is very thin. As we know, the issue of “media freedom” is slippery, and it can turn against anyone, be it the advocate or the oppressor.