Webinar on “Laws and Capital: What’s Restraining Freedom of the Press in Thailand”

In this webinar, Mr Noppatjak Attanon and Ms Wasinee Pabuprapap from Thailand’s Workpoint discussed the state of press freedom in Thailand. 


3 August 2022, Wednesday – Modern communication technologies have shaken advertising revenues and pushed Thai journalists into direct competition with social media platforms. In addition to this problem of resource constraints, Thai authorities have been keeping journalists in check with a variety of actions aimed at silencing dissenting voices. Both political and economic pressures may have pushed many Thai media toward sensationalism. Addressing these and other challenges facing Thai journalism, the webinar attracted the interest of 40 attendees.

Laws and Capital: What’s Restraining Freedom of the Press in Thailand
Mr Noppatjak Attanon and Ms Wasinee Pabuprapap discussed the state of press freedom in Thailand. With Dr Michael Montesano as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The two speakers laid out three factors representing existential threats to Thai journalism: limits on freedom of expression, the dominance of social media platforms and financial struggles facing news outlets. The discussion opened with a bold statement conceding that the organisation for which the speakers worked was just a typical news company rather than one that had as its principal mission to crusade for human rights. Yet, even with the current limitations that it faces, that organisation seeks to be a good advocate on issues that matter to the public.  The speakers also stated that the number of reporters in a news media company does not correlate to the quality of content that that company is producing.

In every country and in every society, there is something unique, and that unique feature of Thailand is the monarchy.  Lèse majesté laws serve as the biggest challenge for Thai journalists.  People’s views on the monarchy have shifted over the years, but the laws regarding comment on or coverage of the royal institution have not changed. People who voice their opinion about the monarchy are often thrown in jail. The fear of retribution from the authorities and right-wing groups has silenced voices of dissent. Even the frontrunners in political campaigns avoid talking about the monarchy, as if it is a taboo topic.

The webinar discussed a call to a news outlet about an item from a high-ranking public official who calmly explained that the reporting might be factually correct but that the reporter could still face imprisonment.  Reporters must constantly deal with institutions that are directly related to the monarchy, and so they feel as if they are always being watched. The speakers also provided a case study of a journalist being assaulted by a right-wing group just for doing his job. The perpetrators confessed to the assault on Facebook, and yet the legal case against them is still pending in the courts.

The use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) does not seem as severe in Thailand as in countries such as the Philippines. However, the threat of frivolous litigation is intimidating enough for journalists to start practising self-censorship, since they not only have to face the police and the courts but also have to worry about their outlets losing sponsorship and advertising. An inside joke has it that there are three untouchables in the Thai journalism industry — mafia, monarchy and money.

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission has tight control over traditional television and radio stations, while the print media are governed limited by a law on publications. In contrast, digital media channels have some leeway in terms of regulation, at least so far. However, the recently proposed draft media ethics act seeks to expand government control into the virtual space, thereby imposing total media regulation by the Thai state.

The webinar moved on to explain the digital upheaval that Thai journalism faces. An estimated 95 per cent of content consumption is now via social media platforms. Before the Internet, there were only a handful of television stations, along with newspapers for news consumption. The rise of social media platforms has in some sense been beneficial for journalists since social media are good for two-way communication between readers and reporters. Social media create a platform for debate, and journalists can utilize social media to publicise issues that would create turmoil in traditional reporting channels such as television and newspapers. Through social media, journalists can also observe changes in people’s perspectives on issues such as LGBTQ people and the monarchy.

Yet the benefits come with drawbacks. The speakers asked a crucial question about how standards of and success in journalism should be measured. High engagement ratings on social media do not correlate to the quality of content since the engagement algorithms of social media platforms act as windmills that feed on their own echo chambers of opinions. The news industry must nevertheless pay attention to levels of engagement since roughly 30 per cent of their revenue stream comes from social media platforms. Content that is easier to consume has been increasing in popularity, and therefore social media platforms are focusing their attention on shorter content forms. Issues that matter to the public such as the environment, politics and economics require longer consumption time, and those issues are losing visibility compared to what appears on TikTok videos and Instagram reels.

The rise of the ‘one-minute format’ such as YouTube Shorts, TikTok and Instagram Reel has significantly changed consumer behaviour. The short format has an impact on news media, and thus many news organisations have to give in to sensationalism in order to stay afloat in the industry. Production budgets have dropped for news organizations, and journalism has to rely on an advertising model for survival. Therefore, the journalism environment is in a fragile state, in which journalists have to rely on corporate money. Journalists need to find a balance between writing on issues that matter to the public and engaging in sensationalism to stay relevant in the industry. As one indication of the dire state of Thai journalism, it was noted that a general sense of disappointment with the state of the country, rather than extensive familiarity with ongoing developments, has characterized some participants in youth protests in recent years. This situation reflects the failings of journalism in its coverage of the Thai political landscape.

The webinar turned to three case studies to illustrate the pressures, from both authorities and the public, on Thai journalists. The speakers nevertheless expressed the hope that, if political and economic pressures on the industry were relieved in the future, there would be opportunities for reporters to become journalists again.

The question-and-answer session at the conclusion of this webinar covered the involvement of big corporate conglomerates in the journalism business, the business angle of investing in news outlets, the challenges of reporting gender-based violence, the diminished ability of the Thai media to cover developments in provincial Thailand, and the approach that the speakers would, as working journalists, take in covering the national elections due in Thailand in 2023.