The Bangkok Post
22 Jan 2018
A free press is the key test of whether a nation has true freedom of speech. Across the region, every country is failing the test. In communist Vietnam and all the way to the resurgent army controllers in Myanmar, governments are arresting, imprisoning and strongly intimidating the media.
In Thailand, the satirical Facebook page Khai Maew which had published comic strips seen as mocking the ruling junta disappeared on Thursday, triggering suspicion whether the government is involved in its being taken down.
Meanwhile, respected and retired Thammasat University rector and historian Charnvit Kasetsiri was accused of a computer crime that carries a prison sentence of 15 years.
At the same time, authorities in the Philippines used a legal loophole to close down the country’s leading website, which happens to hold the president accountable.
This is how the tactics vary. Vietnam imprisons a journalist, on average, every three months. That doesn’t count intimidation tactics such as calling journalists in for a Thai-style “cup of coffee”. It doesn’t count nonsense arrests and releases after a few weeks or months.
That is the actual rate that Vietnamese journalists undergo arrest, prosecution, trial and actual imprisonment for 10 years or, usually, more.
Myanmar in less than five months has gone from a policy of promoting freedom of the press to intimidation and worse. In that country, attempts to report on the Rohingya crisis or violence in Rakhine state have become a serious offence.
Late last year, a Malaysian and a Singaporean journalists were jailed “for unauthorised use of a drone”. Two Myanmar journalists of the Reuters agency have been absurdly charged under the Official Secrets Act for trying to report a massacre of Rohingya by the Myanmar army.
These are some of the more egregious attempts by ASEAN-region governments to punish fair reporting and analysis of so-called public servants elected or appointed to lead. The police accusation against Mr Charnvit, the retired academic, is a clear case of harassment and intimidation.
He re-posted a Facebook item about the wife of the prime minister, Naraporn Chan-o-cha, that has brought busybody and obsequious police into a matter which doesn’t concern them.
First of all, Ms Naraporn has no involvement. Coincidentally, she is also an academic, and hasn’t complained about the Facebook post. The original post was a comment on a photo of Ms Naraporn in Washington during her husband’s White House visit. It said, snidely, that her purse looked like a name-brand (Hermes).
It wasn’t, so the accusation against the post-repeating Prof Charnvit, under the odious and misused Computer Crime Act, is spreading false information. Producing the bag and laughing it off with a comment about fine Thai workmanship — which it is — would have been the proper response, except for the unnecessary police charges.
But like closing down Rappler.com for being critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, like jailing bloggers who criticize the Communist Party, like charging journalists with treason for reporting military atrocities, the Thai police’s accusation against Prof Charnvit has nothing to do with law.
ASEAN governments want to control, restrict and ban criticism. As a result, every one of the 10 Asean members is in the bottom half of the 180 nations listed in the World Press Freedom Index.
Thailand is No.142 on that list. Not all sins against press freedom can be laid against Ms Naraporn’s husband. Attacks on the Thai media have been constant, varying only in intensity. And under Gen Prayut, the pressure is far above the average over the past 80 years.
It is an indictment of an entire regime when the media is routinely attacked. Tyrants and other harsh governments do not need to resort to frequent bans to intimidate. An “invitation to coffee” here, a ban on a less-watched TV station there, and the occasional prosecution for clicking “like” on Facebook and Line get across the message that repression of the media is always available.
(First published in: https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1399802/asean-media-under-attack)