The walls are closing in on Thai journos
I’ve often been asked what it’s like working as a journalist during periods of political upheaval in Thailand. My immediate answer is usually feeling as if my life is at stake. And secondly, I feel we live under a climate of intimidation.
Over the past few years, the state’s suppression of opinions on social media platforms has grown. More and more people have been arrested or faced charges for expressing their thoughts, sharing information or reporting facts.
Many peopled have woken up to find out they have got into trouble because of their posts, shares and comments on Facebook. Some have even found a court order land in their post box. My Thai environmental journalist friend, for example, has been charged with violating the Computer Crime Act (CCA) after reporting in a newspaper on the suspected environmental impact in Myanmar of the mining activities of a Thai firm.
Some just disappear before turning up in the public eye before being put in prison — like the case of human rights lawyer Prawet Prapanukul who vanished two weeks ago and then appeared at the Bangkok Criminal Court last week. He faces 10 lese majeste and CCA charges which could put him away for 150 years if he is found guilty on all counts.
The CCA, the controversial law amended under the regime, has been criticised for boosting the state’s cyber surveillance power and for its vague wording on activities considered as “threats to national and public security”.
Since its revision early this year, the government has used the law intensively as a basis to charge netizens for their Facebook activities. In doing so, the state has used a combination of the CCA and the defamation or lese majeste laws which, as a result, stiffens the penalties.
Even though talking about these cases won’t put me in jail, I still feel like the walls are closing in on me.
Whenever I write news reports and articles, I have to thoroughly check every sentence and every word. Whenever I post messages and share information on my Facebook page, I apply the same level of caution. Sometimes, I opt for vague wording to avoid possible trouble.
Some of my journalist colleagues use a technique of telling a story without actually spelling out the topic. The question “Can we write this?” is occasionally heard in the newsroom and in private discussions among journalists. Journalism in this era requires our skill to avoid being too straightforward or obvious in our narrative.
This proves how effective “law enforcement” has been as people have been arrested or jailed for expressing their opinions. Such intimidation has far-reaching effects as it introduces selfcensorship to me and other journalists.
So it’s not surprising that many mainstream media outlets avoid reporting on sensitive issues such as jailed activists.
But political activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, who has been repeatedly denied bail, deserves a mention. Having been imprisoned in Khon Kaen on lese majeste and CCA offences since last December for sharing a BBC story on his Facebook page, Mr Jatupat will miss the chance to pick up the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights 2017 award in South Korea on May 18. As a pro-democracy activist, he has come under heavy fire and been subject to intimidation for his anti-coup activities.
While there are some people calling for his freedom, many don’t pay any attention to his plight. Some have found themselves to be in a comfortable, safe zone, feeling content with the way things are and seeing those standing up for fundamental democratic rights, such as freedom of expression, as weirdos. In their world, speaking out is an aggressive act and bringing an issue up for debate is an inappropriate thing to do.
We seem to live in two parallel worlds where different thoughts cannot meet. Even more devastating is that many people are getting used to this situation. It’s acceptable for them to keep their mouths shut and see others jailed for speaking their minds.
I’m part of the young generation which grew up at a time when the media opened up a world of diverse cultures and beliefs. Social media gives young people a platform to speak with broadcasts no longer dominated by high-ranking officials, lawmakers and politicians from older generations. But some people have tried to take that new power away from us.
Detaining people for expressing their opinions is wrong. They are sources of future science, philosophy, rationality and intellect. More importantly, they affirm our own existence in society in that our voices are being heard.
Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter with the Bangkok Post.