In this episode, we will talk about the media freedom situation in Thailand, how “the press by the people for the people” can change the status quo, and what kind of regional solidarity that we need.
Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.
We’ve covered the political situation in Thailand before in this podcast – a constant struggle between pro-democracy factions and former royalist powers. Although there are members of the press on both sides, the idea and maintenance of press freedom itself remains a challenge, especially since the 2014 military coup.
A large number of activists were detained by the military for weeks of “re-education”. Critics have been arrested with computer crime charges under CCA for posting comments on social media accusing government leaders of corruption. And the COVID-19 emergency decree has been abused to detain those who organise protests as recently as last month, after the bans have been lifted. It’s not uncommon for protesters to be beaten and shot with rubber bullets.
Not all hope is lost, though. Media freedom, despite remaining a challenge, still exists to a certain degree.
My name is New, I’m a Thai who lives in Bangkok. I’ve been Bangkokian all my life. So since the political movement of the Ratsadon Movement of 2020 started I kinda grabbed my camera, at that time it was a phone camera, I didn’t have a SLR camera until later, so I just went out to record stuff, write about it. I write about whatever I see, whatever I hear, on Twitter, make threads about it, and make Google references about it in order to add more context to the readers, and I’ve been doing that for a few years now.
That is New (Chalit Ratapana), a citizen journalist and pro-democracy activist who believes that there are ways to maintain your safety while still being very very critical of the government. New is not employed by any news organisation and covers protests voluntarily.
So let’s hear what they have to say about Thailand’s media and activism landscape, their personal experiences, how to stay safe, and, of course, the kind of regional solidarity that we need for Thailand across Southeast Asia.
Thailand’s Media Landscape
Thank you for being here. I guess we can call you… It’s fascinating that you are basically self-trained and a citizen journalist, which we will get to later. But for starters, to set the stage here, can you explain to the listeners what the current media landscape and the media freedom situation in Thailand is? Because we do realise that since around circa 2014, there’s been a coup and then things have changed since then. So can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yeah. So the coup in 2014 basically put Thailand into a really code red situation for press freedom. For starters, I kinda got interested in politics because the Junta under General Prayut Chan-o-cha, tried to censor the entire internet by changing the entire system into a thing called Single Gateway. Basically, everything has to pass through governmental checks before being published online anywhere.
The Single Gateway was not successful, however, but people did get arrested for coming out and saying that they wanted a general election to happen because after the coup, the Junta was in absolute power. People came out, asked for elections, they got arrested.
After that, the Junta basically said, okay, we’re going to have a new constitution now and after that we’ll have a general election. But before that, we have to do a national referendum, and the referendum would decide whether or not the new constitution, the current one actually, is accepted by the general public or not.
And basically, you cannot protest that referendum. They ask the public a yes or no question. But if you do any activism to raise awareness about the details in the new constitution, you could be arrested. There’s literally a law called a Referendum Act, I think it’s called in English.
And you would be arrested if you basically speak in public or try to educate people about the details of the constitutional draft, which is actually public. The information is public, but if you talk about it, especially if you criticise it, you might end up in jail. That’s basically around 2014 to 2016. After that, we got a new constitution.
The general election happened and General Prayut Chan-o-cha won because in the new constitution, the Senate which is entirely hand-picked by the Junta, can vote on the Prime Minister as well. Basically, the entire upper house will always be on the side of the Junta. The lower house can fight back somewhat, but like we all know it’s like a two versus one situation. The entire upper house would always tip the scale towards the Junta.
Prayut General which won the election. People call this Prayut 2. Prayut 1 is like the military, like the 100% Junta controlled government and Prayut 2 is like a slightly democratic government controlled by Prayut Chan-o-cha as well.
After that, a lot of people came out to protest because under Prayut Chan-o-cha, basically the media was not censored. It was not censored, but we cannot do anything about the government or how the budget spending is managed basically. Some parts of the army are put under control by the monarchy, by orders of Prayut Chan-o-cha. And some parts of what you call it, royal budget, I think it’s called royal budget.
So basically, Thailand used to give the monarchy some allowance to use for whatever the monarchy wishes to do. But basically in the government run by Prayut Chan-o-cha, a lot of things are transferred towards the control of the monarchy directly. Basically, we’re rolling back towards absolute monarchy somewhat. And people did not like this. People came out to protest and stuff like that. And of course, Prayut Chan-o-cha was not happy about that. Some activists were forced to disappear in Cambodia at that point. I think he’s called Wanchalerm.
After that, we have the Ratsadon movement because they dissolved an entire party of progressives. I don’t think the entire censorship and anti-democracy activity by the government is focused on the press. The press can still go around and report on stuff. But it is very hard for the people or the news that we publish to affect any structural change in Thailand.
In comparison to what’s happening in Myanmar, for example, I think Thailand would be in a better shape, even when we were under control by the Junta. But again, we can do stuff, but that stuff won’t ever be enough to change anything, like for real.
I guess that’s the situation right now. We can go into the emergency decree, which is around the COVID pandemic, which basically grants any government agents to arrest, to detain. And they did use the emergency decree to start using rubber bullets and tear gas randomly basically at any point. They can just do that.
They can also block any news report. They do censor that as well. They can do that. But they don’t do that very often. I don’t know why. But yeah, the press can still operate somewhat. But the protests are dispersed violently and very oftenly.
A lot of people are charged with this. Over 1,000 people, still counting, by the way, even though the emergency decree is already lifted, people are still getting charged from what they did in 2020 and 2021. Just a month ago, people were still getting charged with emergency decree.
It’s quite clear that any kind of political expression is not very legal in Thailand. But yeah, once again, reporting on these kinds of things is still okay. I would say somewhat. The press do get shot with rubber bullets sometimes. They do get beaten sometimes. But it’s mainly because the police basically try to hurt everyone indiscriminately. So that’s why the press gets attacked as well. Yeah, I think that’s roughly the situation of what’s going on in Thailand.
It’s interesting, though, because usually one of the first things that authoritarian governments do is to shut down the media even before attacking the activists. But in Thailand, you have attacks. You mentioned the emergency decree, but that’s just one of a lot of things that can be used to sue activists. Obviously, there’s the infamous Lèse-majesté law. There’s the CCA, and there’s all of these things. But you also mentioned that the press and even yourself as a citizen journalist can still report on these things. Is there… Is there a specific role of the press council? Also in the article you mentioned, you wear armbands to indicate that you’re the press to deter being attacked, stuff like that. How effective are all of these things?
Oh, okay. A little correction there. I do not have an armband. I just go and do my things. But people can request armbands. I do not know the criteria of how they distribute these things. But basically, you can get those. But are they useful? Are they useful to people in protest sites? Do they shield you? Do they allow you exceptions in police crackdowns and stuff like that? I don’t think they help much at all.
I do not interact with the press council. I don’t think they interact with citizen journalists, basically. In my comment about these functions to protect the press in Thailand is that they have to do a lot more because a lot of the Thai, a lot of journalists who got hurt in protest sites basically were protected by their own employers.
Basically, it’s not even about press freedom and you don’t write to report on political issues. It’s just about employers paying basically extra recuperation for their own employees.
Yeah, I see. You mentioned previously, before we hit the record button earlier, you mentioned the practices of red-tagging. Does that happen only to activists? Does that also happen to journalists? And maybe just to fill in the listeners, maybe you could tell us a bit about the various tagging that the government does.
This Interior Defense Ministry, I don’t remember their exact name in English, but in Thai it’s called กอ.รมน (Internal Security Operations Command). It’s like a military-related department which acts basically as an overarching operation above both the military and the police. And they do have a list of journalists, politicians and activists and basically anyone. They even have the daughter of an opposition politician in their list, even though she is 14 years old or something at that point.
And on that list, there are coloured codes that indicate what the military, the police, and I think the entire justice system in Thailand must do against this particular person. Basically, red, I think, is like I’m not entirely sure about this, but you can read about it because it’s been reported in the Thai Parliament. So all of this is like open data.
Basically, if you’re tapped, for example red, it’s like a code for the police, the judge, the prosecutor to try their best to jail, to imprison this person if it’s black, for example, is to force disappear, to kill someone. And other than that, like yellow, for example, is on a watchlist. You get visits, for example.
There is silent surveillance. They’ll just silently, try to collect your data, try to hack your phone, try to track your social media, for example. But they also have these bullying orders. They’ll appear at your home, they will question your relatives, they’ll question your children, they’ll take photos of your house, they’ll take photos of your vehicle, your cars, for example, and basically harass you. They will survey you openly in order to make you feel scared, make you feel uncomfortable doing political activities.
What has your own personal experience been? Because I’m assuming, because you are reporting on these things and talking about this to us right now, do you think you’re on the list? And maybe what has your experience been with all of these?
Yeah, I think I’m among the not important list because they do have my name. I went to the May Day march in 2023, so this year. And one of my friends leaks the police messages and they do have my name. They do have my full name and they just report that, hey this person is in the protest as well. Just FYI. Because I didn’t do anything on that day. I was just walking around. But they do have my name and stuff like that.
At one point, I was going around helping a farmer’s protest last year and theo local police department came to the protest to talk with the farmers to negotiate where they can camp, where they can protest and stuff like that. Basically, one of the directors of that police department came to me and said hi with my name.
They’re just like, we know who you are, we know your name. We know where you are basically. They’re just doing harassment like this. I’m pretty sure I’m on the list, but I’m not dangerous or important enough to warrant them to do anything openly. I did get an iPhone because an iPhone can detect whether or not you’re hacked by the government. An Android system cannot detect that, but an iOS system can detect that. So I got an iPhone after that.
Yeah, I’m glad that you’re still safe that you are, despite all of the things that you’re doing, but how do you feel? Do you feel scared? Sometimes do you feel like you might suddenly be classified as a more dangerous individual? Or do you get anxious? How do you feel?
Well, of course, I get anxious a lot of the time. I do try to stick to the law because I know from experience, I know where the line is. If I do not cross it, I will not get put into the red list, for example. Basically, I do law petitions. I do support whatever representatives are doing in the parliament. Basically, some people will do something and if that’s accepted in public, I’ll try to follow them. That’s this line that moves around a little bit.
Basically, if you comment bad things about the monarchy online, like in Facebook, for example, you get a prison sentence for sure. The police will come to your home. But since I know that, I do not do any of that.
But I do criticise the budget. For example, I’ll just say, okay, the budget could be more efficient and beneficial to the country. I’ll say stuff like that. That’s me staying within the line.
I think I’m anxious about all of those things because some people did get charged with less budget for criticising the budget, just one person, though. There’s a line. I try to not cross the line, but it’s still very scary.
I did sometimes participate in protests as someone making the speeches as well. I go onto the stage and I do talks a few times, just a few times. Basically, the rule is that if you go up, you’re going to get charged with at least the emergency decree. I went up once and they didn’t charge me with anything. I was pretty lucky with that.
I believe they do have all the information they want to know about me. But I’m not important enough to pose a threat against the government right now. I’m fine as long as I do not cross the line, as long as I do not become a bigger threat against the government. I can still do my work.
How to Stay Safe
Which is also pretty fascinating. Are there other things you’re doing to stay safe? Because again, you don’t work under any media organisation. As you mentioned earlier, it’s often the task of the employer of the media company to protect the journalist. But you are a citizen journalist who doesn’t really work under any media organisation, which means that if you get in trouble, there’s not going to be any company or any organisation who’s going to swoop in to save you, to rescue you, which puts you automatically at more risk. How do you mitigate these risks? Aside from staying within the lines, are there like, I don’t know, are there any digital online habits, online hygiene habits that you practise or making sure your gadgets are safe or wearing certain things to the protest? What is it like?
I do have information, contact information with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, so TLHR. They’re really good at their job. For example, I’m charged with Lèse-majesté or emergency decree, they will always help with those cases. I have that as a backup plan, for example. But in, for example, violence or just random harassment online, I usually just stay anonymous, basically.
I think that’s one of the reasons I was pretty 50:50 about it when you asked whether or not I would use my name in this publication, for example. But I do use my name sometimes, so it’s not clear cut anyways. It’s basically a choice of words, I think. Just don’t be aggressive about it. I think that helps quite a lot.
Just use passive language and just add a question mark at the end of whatever you want to say, for example, that helps a lot. It works the same with how to avoid defamation law, for example. You should not make up a lie and use that lie to attack someone to accuse someone. But you can ask questions, for example, even though the question looks like an accusation.
I think you can report on whatever that has already been published. For example, if the BBC Thai published something about the monarchy, I can talk about the article because I’m not the one doing the statement. I’m just the one talking about the statement.
I usually just talk about it from the view of a citizen journalist. We’ll just say, Oh, the facts are these, the numbers are these, and this is a statement made by this official spokesperson, for example. That will help me spread awareness about political issues in Thailand, but it would not land me in any danger. So a lot of it is experience. How to avoid getting prosecuted by the Thai state while also being active in the political scene.
What Keeps You Going?
Yeah, wow, that’s pretty smart, pretty fascinating and pretty smart the way that you go about these things. But I have to wonder, though, you did mention that you first got interested in politics after the Thai coup of 2014. And you’ve been doing this for a while. You’ve had your experience, you’ve been a citizen journalist. But without being employed by any media organisation and with all of these risks that you’re taking, I have to ask what keeps you going? Why do you still keep doing this? What makes you get up in the morning and just say, yeah, I want to keep doing this. I want to keep fighting for democracy, fighting for the betterment of this situation in Thailand.
It’s mostly just like, well, one thing I’m a very stubborn person. So if something that I feel is important and must be done, I will actually go and do it until it is done. I’m quite driven by empathy. Basically, whenever I go out, it’s just like a lot of suffering happening basically. Because I usually go out with the labour movement, the farmer movement, like the press and rights and stuff like that.
It’s not entirely about the Ratsadon movement. The Ratsadon movement is mostly composed of university students and office workers and stuff like that. I’m an office worker, but I usually go out with the labour movement, which is basically people who work in factories, people who work in construction, migrant workers, for example.
Their everyday life is suffering. They wake up, they don’t have enough money, they’re in debt. And they really, really want the Thai government to work in their favour or else they’re going to actually become homeless or basically lose their lives or their family or their house at some point. I think it’s quite important for me.
I feel like all my effort should be put in service to those people because I think I’m born with some privileges. I’m born into a middle class family. I go to university. I’m not indebted because of education. And I do work in a job that pays quite well. I think that, okay, so what’s next in life? I think that with all these resources and time, I should use it to help other people. It started as something like that. But of course, you can’t help people by being passive.
And whenever they go to the government to say, hey, can you help us with these? Can you increase the minimum wage and stuff like that? The government would deploy the police to beat them and disperse the protests. And it became clear from that that if I want to help people with rights to medical care, rights to food, rights to housing, the number one goal is to fight back against the Junta because they’re literally the main cause of this. And I think the main thing that keeps me going is that people are suffering.
Now, I’m in an air-conditioned room in front of a computer. Everything is quite comfy for me. But for a lot of people, for example, right now there’s a farmer group called the Assembly of the Poor, camping out in front of the government house right now. They’ve been there for over 20 days.
And I think I should prioritise what they’re doing instead of what I’m feeling or what I’m doing at this point. And yeah. I think a lot of it is that what I do is not about me. It is about helping people, even if it’s just reporting about them. Because I do help with, what do you call it? Donations, funding a food run, a supply run, and stuff like that as well. I do help with that as well.
It’s just that I think I feel like I’m successful. If I keep going, I think that’s my victory, I guess. So I keep trying to help these people as much as possible, even though it’s not a lot, but I will try to do what I can. I think that’s what keeps me going.
Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. I’m sure the listeners can learn a lot from that, the important work that you’re doing. But I guess also one of the most fascinating things about this conversation is learning from you.
There is still press freedom in Thailand. You don’t have to become an activist who would definitely go to jail. I guess I believe that a lot of people want to help, like a lot of people in Thailand themselves, they want to help and they want to help these underprivileged people, marginalised people help to make the country better for the oppressed. But I do also believe that a lot of them are scared. A lot of them are really afraid whether their names might be on that list, they might go to prison, they might get disappeared and stuff like that. But as you mentioned earlier, you can still report on these things. You can still take more pictures, take more films and videos and publish writings or articles or speak up on social media regarding social concerns, politics, climate change, human rights, labour rights, whatever, all of these things. I guess my next question related to this is that if a listener here wants to do more, but they’re still afraid, what are the first steps in becoming a citizen journalist? What are the first steps of doing more but still staying safe? What advice would you give people who would like to start doing these things?
I think it’s also like a relationship thing. So you do help people and they do remember you. And at some point later, they will help you back with something else. Right now, I do have some access to information that people don’t have, but it’s like simply actually because I’ve helped them.
For example, the labour movement, they do lack technical expertise in, for example, graphic design, social media management, for example. They’re really good at what they do. But basically, they don’t have the expertise that they need. And I do jump in. I always jump in and help. I gain their trust. And that’s how I get access to their statement, information, where they’re going to go, what are their demands. And that helps me report a little bit faster than the usual, the formal reporters and journalists.
Basically, Hi, guys, I’m a journalist and I want to photograph some stuff. I mean, you can do that, but it’s a little bit awkward at first, I guess. Before I became a citizen journalist, I was more like an activist. I helped with carrying stuff. I helped with random stuff, basically. I helped with the medical team. I helped with carrying food and water around, for example. I did a lot of those. At some point, people remembered me and trusted me to do more.
After that, I thought that, hey, what we’re lacking right now is not people carrying stuff around because a lot of people do help out with that. We do need people who can write, especially in English, because at some point during the Ratsadon protest, we wanted to put a lot of news into the international Twitter trend basically.
And we needed a lot of translators who could report quickly. I started doing that. And after that, I became a citizen journalist who is trusted by some news outlets, some journalists because sometimes I do go to someplace, I take photos, I record, I write. I will write some short notes about it. I don’t have to do an entire article, for example, and I send those to an actual journalist in an official news organisation. They do use that because they know, hey, it’s New, it’s me, I can be trusted.
I actually do this because I like doing this. And they know that my information is verified, for example. And I do give my sources and stuff like that to help them with that as well. You can start by being helpful with anything. If reporting, writing, taking photographs and videos is not your thing, it’s important to find what you can do to help people. I think that the key is just that. There are a lot of issues going on in the world.
At some point, you gain enough experience to know what you should be doing, I think. About safety and all that just simply don’t be in the highlight about it. Stay in the shadows, basically. Stay in the background and don’t attract too much attention. Just don’t be the person who is in the spotlight because the police are also lazy and they will charge people who present themselves as the leader or something like that. They are quite lazy.
For example, they’ll charge some people over and over because they simply remember that person. That’s about it. So don’t be too prominent in the scenes and try to stay safe, try to stay, what you call it, healthy, refreshed. Try to be independent in that sense.
You cannot help other people if you cannot take care of yourself, basically. So know your limits, read the situation well, don’t run into scuffles, look around, listen to stuff. Don’t put on music in protests, for example. I don’t know, find friends, go with friends and help each other out, basically. It’s something that you have to learn. You have to learn to be politically active. You can try to jump into it. But yeah, you just have to learn how to stay safe and stay active in the scene. Yeah.
I guess at the end of the day, if I could summarise that,
So as long as you join up with movements and prioritise the network, prioritise solidarity, just whatever it is that you can give, that you can provide without making it so much that you are in the spotlight, I guess, in general, that should be the way to go. I wanted to follow up on your statement because earlier you mentioned that the movement needed a lot of people who could write in English or who could translate things into English for the benefit of the international community and the social media trends and stuff like that. So I guess my question would be, what do you expect from the international community, especially from the Southeast Asian region? For example, I’m recording this from Jakarta. And I’m not Thai. I’m not a Thai citizen. I’m not residing there. So what can people from the rest of Southeast Asia and what can the international community, international people who want to show solidarity actually do to help Thailand and really help the situation in Thailand?
First, since we’re all in ASEAN, I think it’s quite hard to get the ASEAN government to do the right things a lot of the time. So I think the most important thing is that we need a grassroot international movement because it’s really hard to do things within one context.
For example, the Thai Junta, that emphasised a lot on nationalism. We have to protect the country by imprisoning activists who want to destroy our country. For example, they try to chase away iLaw and Amnesty International because they’re foreigners and stuff like that, even though they’re all Thai employees, by the way.
A lot of these understanding, a lot of public opinions must be taken back from whatever the military teaches us in school and tells us about on the news, for example. The general rule is that if we go to interview some governmental, government officials, in the military, in the police, they’re going to say some really undemocratic things.
But the people have to be on the same page first. I think the information is quite important and how we process that information from a political viewpoint is also quite important. Attacking nationalism by building international solidarity between countries is quite important to unite people across countries and say that, Hey, the Junta, which is quite nationalist and xenophobic is pretty bad. And we can give an example of that by talking to citizens from other countries and say that,
And that’s basically the end of the movement. People have to think about new things. People have to learn about new things. People have to be able to find new perspectives like what our activists in Indonesia are doing, what they think about on a daily basis, for example. And that will give the Thai movement a lot of power to question the government as well.
I think if we do that enough times, it’s going to create this really big opposition, which is already increasing in Thailand. For example, the Move Forward Party won the most seats in the latest election, even though they got shredded by the Senate.
I think ideas and awareness are the main factors of those victories. I think it’s quite important to not only talk about internationalism, but also practise it. For example, I participate in a lot of Myanmar protests in Bangkok against the Min Aung Hlaing regime.
And I think it’s really, really important for us to spend our time, our labour, and even our money, because I do donate to the movement in Thailand, like the Myanmar workers in Thailand as well to show solidarity that all authoritarians are bad. There’s not a lot of difference between authoritarians in Thailand and authoritarians in Myanmar.
So they probably have a lot more in common with you in comparison to the common Thai and Prayut Chan-o-cha, for example.
Yeah, I think that’s beautiful. Starting with ideas, starting with narratives and debunking the myth that the nation is like nationality and nationalism, it worked in the past to chew away the colonisers, I suppose. But right now, it works more to divide potential solidarity among Southeast Asians against their own government. So breaking through that and just building these, fostering these new ideas and new narratives that we need to foster solidarity across national boundaries to fight against common experiences of oppression across Southeast Asia, I think that’s very important. Okay, I guess that’s a great note to end on. We’ve been talking for 40 minutes now. Thank you so much, New, for this conversation. This has been really, really good, really, really productive, and really enjoyed talking with you.
Thank you so much for inviting me.
And that wraps up our discussion with New. It’s probably pretty obvious at this point but I really did find this discussion fascinating. There are ways to criticise the government and cover abuses by the police and the military without getting yourself jailed or disappeared. This is true in Thailand and I believe is also true in many others – though sadly not all – parts of Southeast Asia.
Which once again leads to the urgency of building regional solidarity, to learn safe but effective practices of activism and journalism from each other, and to keep putting pressure on all the powers that oppress us.
There’s a space for that in New Naratif – or at least we are doing our best to foster such a space. The Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Project has research, features, coverages, explainers, interviews, but also a Media Freedom Network where you can participate in legal briefings, digital security training, and more.
Find out more on newnaratif.com/media freedom. That’s new naratif dot com slash media freedom, all one word.
My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.
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