Thailand's military rulers have intensified restrictions on the free speech by threatening to close outlets with critical media coverage, a move that amounts to 'gag order' to all of society, HRW's John Sifton tells DW.
Thailand's junta - which seized power in a coup in May following months of protests against an elected government - is growing increasingly wary of critical media coverage. On July 18, the National Council for Peace and Order prohibited criticism by anyone on all forms of media against the operations of the junta and its personnel. It issued an order calling on media outlets and "any other individuals" to refrain from disseminating information that "could harm national security" or criticize the work of the ruling military council.
The edict also prohibited interviews of academics, former civil servants or former employees of courts, judicial offices and independent organizations who could "give opinions in a manner that can inflict or worsen the conflict, distort information, create confusion in the society or lead to the use of violence," according to the AP news agency.
In a DW interview, John Sifton, the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says the aim of the junta's latest order is to make absolutely clear that it will punish anyone who criticizes the military rulers, but adds that this will only create more resentment in the Southeast Asian country.
DW: How significant is this step in terms of freedom of expression?
John Sifton: It is not clear yet. Many of these restrictions were in previous orders, which already have restricted media and free expression generally. This order appears to reinforce many of the earlier orders from the junta. It does, however, clarify one thing: the junta is neither loosening its clamp on power nor retreating from its authoritarian tendencies.
Sifton: "The order reiterates previous restrictions imposed by the junta and demonstrates clearly to all Thais - not only journalists - that they need to be careful about what they say, or risk detention and prosecution"
What does this order mean for journalists, academics, intellectuals and other people in Thailand?
The order reiterates previous restrictions imposed by the junta and demonstrates clearly to all Thais - not only journalists - that they need to be careful about what they say, or risk detention and prosecution.
Could this be interpreted as a gag order for the Thai people?
Absolutely. The junta has made clear from the beginning of their coup in May that they do not want anyone criticizing them. They want people to believe that they are imposing these restrictions in order to create stability - but on the contrary their aims are decidedly more self-interested. They hope to stay in power in the near term and don't want to allow anyone to challenge them. Ironically, all the restrictions do is create more resentment among Thais, which will likely increase instability, not decrease it.
Friday's order was an amended, more comprehensive version of two previous edicts infringing on media freedom issued by the junta after the military coup. Why would the junta further curtail freedom of expression?
They want to make it absolutely clear that they will punish anyone who criticizes them. They want people to be scared, so that they keep quiet. They want people to be diligent in self-censoring themselves.
Is there any system of checks and balances in place in Thailand to prevent the abuse of power by the military?
No. That's precisely the problem with authoritarianism.
Who is to decide whether any given comment violates the order?
Thai military rulers want to make it absolutely clear that they will punish anyone who criticizes them. They want people to be scared, so that they keep quiet, says Sifton
That's not clear yet. As far as arrests go, it appears that any military person could interpret the order and arrest a person for violating it. A higher commander could order such a person released later, but that would not be "due process" - merely random military decision-making.
How dangerous is this order for the democratic future of Thailand?
Thailand's democratic future is already majorly endangered. This order makes clear that the junta remains a danger to democracy and their claims to be stewarding in a new democratic era should not be trusted.
John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.