Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short 'boring' Friday night rants

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 1, 2015

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking... and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government's media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta's efforts to "Return Happiness" to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuouslyintimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People" ("คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ").

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the "lakorns", the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable - so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program - which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen - Gen. Prayuth discusses the week's progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he's joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme [...]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: "I do and I feel bored."

"Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show", The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of "wisdom" - it could be possible that the majority actually doesn't watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved "lakorns". And TV executives aren't really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

"It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it's been a year now, it has lost its appeal," Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (...)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

"Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut 'Returning Happiness to the People'", The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government's daily TV show "Thailand Moves Forward", also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.

Thailand: Uniform protest student accused of insulting monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 17, 2013 On Monday we reported on the Thammasat University student and her provocative poster campaign against student uniforms.

Now, the controversial student known as "Aum Neko" is facing more trouble:

A TV show host has accused the student known for her campaign against mandatory uniform wearing of insulting the monarchy.

Ms. Ponnipa Supatnukul, 41, the host of a talk show called "Best of Your Life" which is broadcast on a satellite TV channel, filed the complaint to the police in Nonthaburi Province, invoking Article 112 of the Criminal Codes which criminalises insults to the Royal Family. (...)

The student, who goes by her nickname Aum Neko, was interviewed in a talk show hosted by Ms. Pontipa 3 months ago, according to Ms. Pontipa. In the show, she said, she talked to Ms. Aum and 20 other Thammasat students about the impact of economic slowdown on students′ livelihood.

Ms. Pontipa claimed that Ms. Aum shocked everyone by "talking outside the topic" and "insulting the higher institution", a term referring to the monarchy. Ms. Aum's words were "so shocking we could not broadcast the show", Ms. Pontipa said, but she has nevertheless stored footage of the interview.

She claimed that she decided to pursue a legal action against Ms. Aum because she was incensed by the student′s continued defamation of the monarchy. Ms. Pontipa also alleged that Ms. Aum is encouraging other students to commit similar crimes.

"Lese Majeste Complaint Against Reformist Student", Khaosod English, September 16, 2013

The complainant made sure that the filing of her charge was well-documented as she let somebody film the process at the police station and posted it later on Facebook. She also had a few press members in tow.

Ms. Ponnipa also provided the officer with documents given by an unnamed Thammasat lecturer that includes personal details about "Aum Neko" including her actual gender by birth (she is a transgender woman), her actual name, birth date and personal ID number - which Ms. Ponnipa also willingly let the cameras film (a reason why I decided against embedding the video, as it was accompanied by an audible cackle by one of the bystanders).

While the nature of the offending comments allegedly made by the student has yet to be disclosed, Prachatai reports that the complainant pointed to a Facebook post by "Aum Neko" that apparently crossed the line for the TV host, as it criticized the pre-screening of Royal tribute movies at cinemas, where standing up is mandatory. In the same report, "Aum Neko" herself has expressed "shock and much anger" as she cannot believe that others would resort to "dirty means" in order to discredit her.

One really has to question the motives and the way Ms. Ponnipa filed her lèse majesté charge, since she was sitting on the alleged offensive remarks for months just to use them against her right now after the anti-uniform campaign gained more attention. Also, she repeatedly showed suggestive pictures of the accused, trying to make the point that such an offence can only be made by an (from her viewpoint) "immoral" person, while repeatedly positively mentioning the virtues of His Majesty and her perceived duty to protect it.

There have been lèse majesté complaints in the past of similar frivolous and spiteful nature: just last Friday a court acquitted a man of lèse majesté, after his own brother filed charges against him in what was a very apparent a long-standing sibling rivalry turned ugly. (It is worth noting that the alleged anti-monarchy comments in this case were made in private, which would have had catastrophic ramifications in case of a conviction). The man was imprisoned for a whole year and repeatedly denied bail while his case was pending.

Another example is the case of actor Pongpat Wachirabanjong's rousing pro-monarchy speech in 2010 (“If you hate our Father, if you don’t love our Father anymore, then you should get out of here!“), after which one person (mostly likely facetiously) accused him of improper language. Unsurprisingly, the case was dropped.

These and many more cases show one of several weak points of the Kingdom's draconian law that can be punished with up to 15 years in prison: since anybody can file a charge against anybody, the police have to investigate every complaint and nearly all cases end up in court. The probability of this law being used out of contempt against outspokenness is very high and ultimately can undermine the purpose of the law: to protect the country's monarchy.

Thai TV shows on-screen murder and utter lack of ethical priorities

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 9, 2013 The broadcast of CCTV footage of a murder on Thai television again raises questions about media ethics in Thailand, especially considering what they have censored instead.

The footage shows a quiet evening in the office of a car repair shop in Chon Buri descending into violence as a man suddenly stands up from his chair, pulls out a gun and shoots at two women sitting on the sofa opposite of him, later to be revealed as his fiancé and her mother. One of them immediately slumps, the other managed to run out to the door, only to collapse in front of it. The shooter follows her to the garage and walks away from the scene.

The fact that I was able to describe the scene in its gruesome detail (and omitted a lot of other details, such as the exact address of the crime scene and names of those involved) is 'thanks' to free-to-air Channel 3, who showed the complete footage of the murder in its entirety without any cuts or prior note of warning. The only censorship measure that was taken here was to blur the gun!

This scene shows an absurd disconnect between what has been censored and what may should have been omitted. While the blurring of firearms being drawn on people in both fictional and non-fictional programs is a regular occurrence (as is the minimal pixelation of bodies at crime scenes), it really begs the question if it was necessary to show the moments of two people's deaths.

However, this is not the first time Thai media outlets have shown poor ethical judgment in reporting on crime stories. In February of this year the newspaper Daily News reported on a gang rape victim by fully disclosing her name and personal details, which were later removed following heavy criticism by its readers. Before that, a 12-year-old girl, freed from years of slavery and torture, was paraded almost naked by local police in front of the media to show her mutilated body - oblivious of potentially adding further trauma to her.

In general, it appears that victims of crimes in Thailand cannot expect any protection by the media as there are no apparent stop-gap between the media and police, who provide all the details (and access to the crime scenes) of the case that is then replicated in the news almost word for word.

Considering what else is being arbitrarily censored on Thai TV (e.g. smoking and bare female breasts) one really has to ask where the ethical priorities lie in Thai media - if there are any at all!

Thai TV station red-faced after Thatcher-Streep gaffe

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 9, 2013 Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away on Monday at the age of 87 and with the passing of a historical figure like her, the mechanisms of the media go into full swing as her political legacies are discussed with either passion or loathing (while social media discussed whether or not the etiquette-based courtesy should be better dropped).

Of course, the Thai mainstream also runs its tributes and obituaries. However, when people tuned into the army-owned Channel 5 for the news on the death of Thatcher - they saw this:

Yes, this is NOT the late Thatcher but rather US actress Meryl Streep portraying her in the 2011 movie The Iron Lady. After one viewer snapped a screenshot of this and posted it on Facebook, a flood of schadenfreude was poured onto Channel 5 by Thai netizens.

(READ MORE: Taiwan TV shows queen in reports on Thatcher death)

Obviously, this was the result of a quick Google picture search and taking the next best picture that showed up. But it does beg the question whether or not this will be the last time that a TV newsroom will make such a (admittedly hilarious) mistake and confuse the real world figures with the actors playing them - we probably can expect to see future mix-ups like Hellen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II or Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela!

But let's not go too hard on the Thai media. The BBC had a howler of its own on Monday afternoon:

P.S.: One could argue that a picture shown on CNN with Thatcher standing next to late BBC personality and now notorious Jimmy Saville isn't much better either...

After the Thai TV monarchy debate, controversy is growing

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 22, 2013 A Thai TV program discussing the role of the monarchy has sparked growing controversy, with reactionary voices sparking a police investigation. The public broadcaster ThaiPBS aired a week-long special of its interview and  discussion program "Tob Jote Prathet Thai" ("ตอบโจทย์ประเทศไทย", roughly translated to "Answering Thailand's Issues") about the royal institution. The series culminated in a two-episode debate between Thammasat University historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul and royalist critic Sulak Sivaraksa, focusing on the draconian lése majesté law. However, ThaiPBS decided not to air the last part of the series, citing fears it could "spark social unrest". (Read our previous post here).

During the whole run, the program was deemed controversial as it was both commended and condemned for openly discussing the role of the monarchy in Thailand on national television. Similar condemnation and commendation was aimed at ThaiPBS after their decision to cancel the airing of Friday's episode, which sparked rumors about political intervention. A collateral damage was the show "Tob Jote" itself, when host Pinyo Traisuriyathamma announced shortly after the cancellation that he and his team would no longer produce any episodes of the program.

However, much to the surprise of everyone, ThaiPBS eventually reversed its decision and aired the second part of the Somsak-vs-Sulak debate on Monday night without any prior notice and promotion. An executive explained before the broadcast that by showing the final part, the audience would understand that part of the political crisis and divide stems form the lèse majesté law, and its abuse actually harms the royal institution.

The controversy over the show is now growing as a group of 100 "fed-up" ultra-royalists, led by self-proclaimed monarchy-defender Dr. Tul Sittisomwong (whose stances on pro-LM and against LM reform have been well documented), protested at the ThaiPBS headquarters on Wednesday and have called for the executives to resign. We have also already mentioned the 40 appointed (as in NOT democratically elected) senators claim that the show's content is deemed lèse majesté.

The program also provoked army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to break his months of relative silence and to revert to his usual brazen rhetoric and also slammed the program and its makers. As seen in this video, Prayuth struggled to find the right words, in order not to be too harsh, but nevertheless said this:

"The TV show and its contents are allowed by law but we should consider if it was appropriate. If you think Thailand and its monarchy and its laws are making you uncomfortable, then you should go live elsewhere," Prayuth told reporters.

"Thai TV show draws army wrath for lese-majeste debate", by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters, March 20, 2013

The hawkish general has been previously quoted saying that victims of the lèse majesté law "should not be whining" because "they know it better." He has also said the following (as previously blogged here), which kind of foreshadows his own words from this week and may should adhere to his own advice then:

"(...) คือกฎหมายเราและประเทศไทยก็คือประเทศไทย ผมไม่เข้า(ใจ)ว่าหลายๆคนอยากจะให้ประเทศไทยเป็นเหมือนประเทศอื่น มีเสรีทุกเรื่อง แล้วถามว่ามันจะอยู่กันยังไงผมไม่รู้ ขนาดแบบนี้ยังอยู่กันไม่ได้เลย” พล.อ.ประยุทธ์ กล่าว

"(...) Our laws are our laws and Thailand is Thailand. I don’t understand why so many people want Thailand to be like other countries – to have freedom in everything – how can we live? I don’t know… I can’t live even like it is now already!” said Gen. Prayuth

‘ประยุทธ์’แจงปิดวิทยุชุมชนหมิ่นยันทำตามกฎหมาย“, Krungthep Turakij, April 29, 2011

The absolute low points so far in terms of reactions came from Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung and the Royal Thai Police, which are under his watch. They claim to found content in the show that is deemed lèse majesté and have now started to take action:

An initial check of the tapes of the fourth and fifth episodes of the monarchy-debate series found that some statements by guests on the programme were in violation of the law. [Royal Thai Police spokesman Pol Maj-General Piya Uthayo] said that because the programme has attracted a huge public interest and the issue has ramifications on national security, the police have appointed a team of 50 investigators led by Pol General Chatchawan Suksomjit with Pol Lt-General Saritchai Anekwiang as deputy investigator. Police from stations across the country have been instructed to accept complaints about the programme from members of the public.

The national police chief ordered the team to conduct a speedy yet careful investigation and report on their progress within 30 days.

The public is also warned against disseminating information on the Internet that might be deemed insulting to the monarchy and in violation of the Computer Crime Act. Anyone found involved in the dissemination of the lese majeste content would also face action.

"Monarchy debate broke law: police", The Nation, March 22, 2013

This is basically calling for a crackdown on the program, its makers, the guests, and all online discussions about the content of the show!

As a countermeasure, ThaiPBS has meanwhile set up a legal team.

Chalerm defended the police action, saying that it was his order to transcribe the two episodes and pledged to take legal action against whoever on that show broke the law. He also makes the bizarre statement that the government doesn't need to get involved, since he is in charge of the police, despite also being deputy prime minister. He also said this:

"Don't they have anything better to do than criticise the monarchy? It is their right to do so but there must be some limit," he continued. "Thailand has a population of 64 million. Why give so much attention to the opinions of a small group of people?"

"Monarchy debate broke law: police", The Nation, March 22, 2013

The same can be asked about the initial 20 (!), then 100 "fed-up" royalists protesting at ThaiPBS. These self-proclaimed defenders of the monarchy fail to understand that a reform of Article 112 of the Criminal Code does not seek to abolish or to overthrow the monarchy; that criticism of the draconian law does not equal disloyalty to the crown and the country; and that a public discourse about the vaguely written, arbitrarily applied law is essential if Thailand is to move forward.