Thailand was once renowned for the fact that the media were some of the freest in Southeast Asia. But recent government efforts to control the media have led to concern among journalists and media activists.
Criticism of the Thai royal family is punishable by up to 15 years in jail
Thousands of websites commenting on the Thai monarchy have been shut down in recent months and at least 10 people have been sentenced to jail under laws which protect the monarchy.
Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws mean that insulting the royal family can be punishable by a jail term of 15 years.
In its crackdown, the government has applied emergency decree powers, citing national security in its bid to curb dissent, amid ongoing opposition from the so-called Red Shirts.
The worst political violence Thailand had witnessed in years shook Bangkok in May
Recently, a "Red Shirt" magazine was prevented from being published. The magazine was not shut down directly but the publishers were targeted by the authorities instead.
Monarchy is a taboo subject for traditional media
Supinya Klanarong, a media activist, says that even the traditional newspapers which are known to be critical of the government steer clear of issues related to the monarchy.
The ailing 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains highly revered but his state of health is currently a matter of concern. He has spent the past year in hospital.
Supinya Klanarong is not optimistic about the situation improving for the media. "The government is exercising its power to control freedom of expression under the state of emergency. It wants to control the flow of information and opposition voices."
A series of bombings in the capital Bangkok mainly has done little to relieve the tension.
Emergency powers ensure peace, says PM
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has argued that the emergency powers, which were extended again this week, are needed to ensure peace, and although he has set up a special committee to oversee media reform, activists are less than confident that it will have a major impact.
"I don’t believe it can bring any progress," says Yui Pinpaka, a deputy editor at the online newswire, prachatai.com, who argues that the government should allow the media more freedom to debate key issues. "It should not ban, censor or arrest journalists."
Media outlets that support the Red Shirts have been prevented from publishing
The committee’s agenda includes an assessment of media interference, a look into effective monitoring, and an enquiry into how online media can be regulated.
Last month, the director of prachatai.com, Chiranuch Premchaporn, was arrested and charged under the Computer Crimes Act. Ironically, she had just returned to Thailand after attending a conference about online media freedom. She was later released on bail.
Kulachada Chaipipat, the country director for the South East Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), sees little chance of media reform in the existing climate. She says the government "should provide a positive environment" but is not sure that it will.
Activists fear the ongoing crackdown on dissent will exacerbate the political crisis. More political tension is expected in the weeks ahead.
Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Anne Thomas