Thailand's media under martial law: Controlling the narrative

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 22, 2014 Martial law gives the Thai military wide-reaching powers, including controlling the media. After its declaration early Tuesday morning  a lot of the focus has been on the press and what they are or aren't allowed to say. But has it been really effective and does it still make sense in the age of social media?

They turned up in the middle of the night. Olive-green trucks and humvees popped up on the parking lots and soldiers entered the buildings of Thailand's various free-TV stations shortly after the Kingdom's military has declared martial law on Tuesday at 3am.

All free-to-air (FTA) TV stations (the privately-owned Channel 3, the public ThaiPBS, the partly state-owned MCOT, the fully state-owned NBT and the army-owned Channel 5 and 7) were ordered to comply with the military by broadcasting its announcements on demand. Initially it seemed little had changed.  normal programming continued, only a ticker on army-owned Channel 5 informed viewers of the declaration martial law.

It would take hours before army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha would appear on all television channels at 6.30am to explain his move - "groups with ill-will are creating a violent situation" - and say that he "intends to bring peace to the beloved country of all Thais as soon as possible". He insisted that "this is not a coup d'état" and urged people "to carry with their daily activities as usual."

However, for many Thai journalists the situation was everything but usual. Not only did the martial law put Thailand in a different legal and political situation with far-reaching consequences that would have to be explained to the public, but the media itself was specifically targeted right off the bat with the very first order by the military, also broadcasted on all free-TV channels:

Order No 1 is regarding the broadcast of community radio stations, television broadcasters (satellite and cable), and radio stations and orders them to suspend broadcasting when they are contacted ( ห้ถ่ายทอด ออกรายการจากสถานีวิทยุโทรทัศน์กองทัพบกเมื่อได้รับการประสาน). This is order that there is broadcast of news to the people that is correct/right ( เพื่อให้การเผยแพร่ข่าวสารไปสู่ประชาชนเป็นไปด้วยความถูกต้อง)

(Taken from Bangkok Pundit's blog post detailing all 12 martial law orders.)

Over the course of the day and with more and more orders being announced, it became clear that one of the main objects of the military is to control the media, evident with Order No. 3:

Order No. 3 prohibits media from presenting news that affects peace-keeping of officials ( ห้ามสื่อเสนอข่าวกระทบการรักษาความสงบเรียบร้อยของเจ้าหน้าที่) states that all media entities including online who have the intention to distort, incite, or create disorder or have messages that will make the people to be suspicious [or] to misunderstand and that affects peace-keeping of officials( ที่มีเจตนาบิดเบือน ปลุกระดมให้สร้างสถานการณ์ความวุ่นวาย แตกแยก หรือมีข้อความที่ทำให้ประชาชนเกิดความหวาดระแวง เข้าใจผิด และส่งผลกระทบต่อมาตรการรักษาความสงบเรียบร้อยของเจ้าหน้าที่). Also prohibits distribution of such media.

The first organizations to fall victim to the martial law were 3,000 community radio stations and also in total 14 satellite TV stations, including the protesters' media outlets such as DNN Asia Update of the red shirts and the anti-government protesters' Blue Sky Channel and ASTV/Manager, and later Voice TV (also owned by Thaksin's son) - all of them were forced to "temporarily" stop broadcasting.

In the evening, as even more orders were broadcast, the military went even further in their attempts to decide what's right and what's wrong with two specific announcements that are so broad that seem impossible to police:

Order No. 9 prohibits the creating of conflict (...) 1. Prohibits the [a] owner, editors, presenters/anchors of print media and all broadcast media to [b] invite persons or groups who do have government positions now whether civil servants or academics including those in the past who are in the judiciary or justice system as well independent organizations [c] from being interviewed or giving opinion [d] that may increase the conflict, distort, or create confusion in society including that may lead to severe violence

That basically bars every expert, pundit and talking head from saying anything on air that is not the official line of the military. While that order targets a specific amount of people, the previous order is a warning shot against everybody else:

Order No. 8 requests cooperation from the online media community and states that in order to distribute news that is correct/right and without distortion and that causes misunderstanding and the situation to have more conflict to the extent that affects peace-keeping officials in bring happiness back to society quickly that requests for those who are connected with online media to suspend the provision of services that incite and creates violence, and affect the credibility and respect for law until the point it affects peace-keeping officials. If it continues, the KPCC shall suspend the service immediately including taking legal action against those who commit actions.

That is such a vague definition and can be so broadly interpreted that arbitrary prosecutions could result. The military has summoned the representatives of Internet service providers Wednesday afternoon to elaborate on ways to manage social media chatter, even though the blocking of many websites isn't as easy as the military would have liked it, especially if the offending hosting website is based abroad.

On Thursday morning the new body set up to monitor the Internet said it was blocking "six inappropriate websites", insisting that "this is not censorship".

Several commentators and media advocates have criticized the harsh restrictions on the media and freedom of speech, with four Thai national journalist association's asking the military to review the orders in a joint statement. The Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has correctly noted that out of the 12 orders, 5 "directly impact media freedom and freedom of expression."

While the military has somewhat seized control of the airwaves, it isn't entirely controlling the headlines in the print media as many newspapers have been at least skeptical of martial law and many front pages have also mentioned the shutdown of the 14 TV stations. As for social media, the very notion of controlling it through such drastic measures is futile.

Supinya Klangnarong, a member of the National Broadcast & Telecommunication Commission, was quoted in the New York Times that "the martial law does not cover new technology like the Internet. It’s not realistic and practical." That's hardly surprising, since the Martial Law Act the military has invoked is from 1914.