(New York) – Thailand’s media commission should immediately reverse its decision to suspend broadcasting by Voice TV, Human Rights Watch said today. Taking a television station off the air, even temporarily, is unjustified censorship that will raise doubts about the fairness of the media environment ahead of national elections scheduled for March 24, 2019.
On February 12, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) announced the suspension of Voice TV for 15 days, starting from February 13. The NBTC accused the station of causing public confusion, inciting conflict in society, and threatening national security because it provided airtime to candidates critical of Thailand’s military government and broadcast criticisms of the government’s handling of the upcoming elections and the economy.
“The suspension of Voice TV underlines the message that criticizing Thailand’s military government prior to the elections is forbidden,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thailand’s generals are showing they don’t intend to ease their heavy-handed rule over the country to ensure a fair vote.”
Since the May 2014 military coup that brought the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta to power, Voice TV has been targeted for censorship and punishment more than any other TV station in Thailand. Authorities shut down the station for 26 days in 2014 and 7 days in 2017. In addition, there have been 17 partial bans, in which authorities instructed the station to remove certain programs. To resume broadcasting, the NBTC compelled Voice TV to sign a memorandum of understanding that requires the station not to make critical comments about the junta or the situation in Thailand.
For more than four years, the military government has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions to constitute disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security. On December 11, 2018, the NCPO lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to campaign for parliament. However, the government still keeps in place military orders restricting expression and authorizing criminal prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy.
NCPO Announcement 97/2014 bans “criticism of the work of the NCPO” and the dissemination of “information that could harm national security, cause confusion, or incite conflict or divisions in the country.” This announcement also compels all news outlets to distribute the information issued by the junta.
NCPO Announcement 103/2014 further prohibits the propagation of news or the distribution of any publication containing information that the authorities consider “intentionally distorted to cause public misunderstanding that affects national security or public order.” In this regard, the NBTC has become the primary censorship tool for the junta, with broad and unaccountable powers to suspend the broadcast of TV and radio programs or take a station off the air because of content that the authorities deem distorted, divisive, or a threat to national security.
“Thailand’s elections won’t be considered credible if media outlets are gagged and critical commentary about military rule is prohibited,” Adams said. “The government should immediately uphold media freedom by lifting Voice TV’s ban and ending further attempts to silence this and other media outlets critical of the junta.”