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Long battle for a free Thai press faces new challenges
Publication Date : 10-10-2013
After the Oct 14, 1973 student uprising, journalists successfully campaigned for the abrogation of an anti-press-freedom law.
Forty years have passed since then and all the draconian laws seen as inhibiting press freedoms have been abolished - but is the press really enjoying full freedom?
After the student activists managed to topple the dictatorial regime, print journalists, who had been controlled by the regime, called for a guarantee of their freedoms.
They succeeded and gained the guarantees they sought with a promise that the government would not shut down newspapers for political reasons and would not censure newspapers - unless the country was in a state of war or under an emergency situation or martial law.
Forty years ago, the print media played an important role in upholding press freedom because all radio and TV stations were owned by the government and presented one-sided information.
Banyat Tassaneeyavej, a former president of the Thai Journalists Association, said journalists learned about people power from the October 14 event and were motivated by the pro-democracy campaigns to fight for press freedom.
Manich Sooksomchitra, the TJA president in 1974, said the press gained freedom to a certain extent after the uprising - but it was still bound up by the Coup Order No 17.
Pongsak Payakvichien, who was managing editor of the Prachatipatai newspaper in 1973, said it was difficult for journalists to work in those days due to restrictions. Journalists would do their best in accordance to press ethics until the day their papers were shut down by the government, he recounted.
Pongsak said press freedom grew along with the people's liberty and democracy for three years after the uprising, but was restricted again after the crackdown on student activists on October 6, 1976.
The coup enforcers, the National Reform Council, prohibited the publishing of newspapers around the country.
Manich recounted that the coup leader, Admiral Sangad Chaloryu, modified the earlier Coup Order No 17, replacing it with Coup Order No 42 to restrict press freedom further. Order No 42 appointed military press officers to control newspapers.
Manich said newspaper licences were sold at very high prices that year because the government could easily shut down newspapers.
Later on, journalists called for the abrogation of Order No 42, but then-deputy interior minister Snoh Thienthong opposed the call.
Finally, after a series of campaigns by mass-communication academics who pointed out that the coup order restricted the people's freedom, the government of late prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan agreed to abrogate Coup Order No 42.
Today, the power to control the media is shifting from the military and government officials to businesspeople. Manich said there were still efforts to control the media and to interfere in journalistic work by business interests. He said it was now a tough challenge for journalists to survive in the news business without abandoning their principles and media ethics.
Manich said Thai journalists had the most press freedom among Asean countries after the abrogation of the 1941 press law - and after the media were allowed professional peer monitoring.
However, he said, Thai journalists are not exercising press freedom to the full because many are worried about their business survival. He noted that the government could now have indirect control over the media through advertising budgets.