Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A tale of censorship crises – Fiji and Thailand

By Violet Cho and David Fisher: Pacific Media Centre

While the international media is relaxed about Thailand's Easter political crisis, condemnation is being heaped on Fiji's military regime. Thais and Fiji islanders have woken up to a new era of shadowy rule of law - a challenge for local and foreign journalists alike.

Geographically, Thai and Fiji politics are worlds apart - but the military dictatorship in Fiji and the barely democratic Thai government share a similar view towards independent and alternative media.

Both view media as a threat to their rule, and justify repression through maintaining stability.

Both countries are currently under a state of emergency.

In recent weeks, the fragility of democracy has again been on display in Thailand and Fiji, two popular destinations for Australian holidaymakers, noted the Melbourne Age, making comparisons between the two countries and censorship.

In Fiji, the “systematic dismantling of the planks of democracy” was certainly to the detriment of the country’s long-term interests. In Thailand, the “passionate supporters of the ‘real democracy movement — the urban and rural poor who form the bulk of the electorate” — had eased off their street protests.

On the April 10, Fiji’s President, Ratu Josefa lloilo, revoked the Constitution adopted in 1997. He repealed the state courts, postponed elections until 2014 and declared himself the head of the state.

Then he reinstated the coup leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama as prime minister and decreed a 30-day “public emergency” in Fiji.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government also introduced martial law in Bangkok and areas around the city two days later on the April 12 after a massive protest asking him to step down.

Abhisit has been under pressure to step down from the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which is a major anti- government force in Thailand.

Emergency decrees
The emergency decrees highly affect people and allow governments to have full control over media by forcibly stopping publication or broadcast in justification to control the disorder in the country.

Since the state of emergency was introduced, at least five community radio and television stations in Thailand have been targeted with raids, arrests of staff and the confiscation of equipment.

This followed an order from the Internal Security Operations Command for community radio stations to stop inciting unrest or face closure, which was reported in Asia Media Forum.

Other stations in regional areas have reported various forms of threat and harassment by local authorities exploiting the current situation.

So far, one community radio station in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand and DStation TV based in Bangkok have been forced to close.

Under the name of state martial law, the regime in Fiji had threatened human rights defenders and government critics. The government detained and intimidated local journalists and deported three foreign reporters who were filing critical stories.

The journalists - Sean Dorney from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and New Zealand’s TV3 crew of reporter Sia Aston and photographer Matt Smith - were expelled from Fiji.

The regime detained local journalists who gave interviews to foreign media and news reporting about the situation in Fiji.

The regime also shut down two repeat transmitters belonging to the ABC in the tourist town of Nadi and the capital of Suva, forbidding Fiji journalists to speak to foreign media about the crisis in the country.

Mass resistance
Unlike the Fiji’s military crackdown on media, Thai government mainly targeted the media which clearly links to anti-government groups which – also unlike Fiji - have a presence on the street and are actively staging mass resistance.

DStation, for example, is an important part of the UDD propaganda network, as it is used to broadcast protests and speeches.

Partiality, of course, is no excuse to limit media freedom. What is alarming is how this crackdown on “pro-UDD” media and the UDD in general exposes the deep bias of the central institutions of the state, the monarchy, military, judiciary and bureaucracy, when dealing with political dissent.

No attempts were made to restrict the media of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the yellow shirt group which occupied Thailand’s Government House for three months last year and Bangkok’s international airport for eight days, causing massive damage to an economy reliant on tourism.

There was never a crackdown on the PAD and there have been no arrests of their leaders, who are part of the Thai elite and have support from the powerful old guard of Thai society.

UDD or red shirt protesters are asking for a representative democracy, and challenging a system that gives huge power to unelected courtiers. They want a system that will provide services for the majority of Thai people, not just benefits for the rich.

In contrast, PAD want an end to representative democracy, replaced by a system where a large proportion of seats in parliament are appointed by the monarchy and military. This explains why red shirt protests are crushed by the military within days, while PAD alternatively have a free hand to protests for months.

Future in doubt
The current conflict in Thailand is a fundamental one: the monarchy is in crisis because the king is old and the crown prince is unpopular, which leaves the institution’s future in doubt.

Any discussion of the role of the monarchy and succession is strictly forbidden, enforced through a lese majeste law, which is the centerpiece of the Thai censorship regime.

The monarchy is a key battleground. The institution conveyed open signals in support of the 2006 coup that overthrew the populist elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, and directly led to the current crisis.

Thaksin has now openly accused King Bhumibol of giving his blessing to military leaders before the coup and announced that two privy councilors were the masterminds.

The 2006 coup can be seen as a favour to the king, who was threatened by the grassroots popularity of Thaksin. The monarchy gave clear signals supporting the PAD, through Queen Sirkit’s attendance at the funeral of a protester who died during clashes with police.

There was also no dissent from any royals when the PAD in part justified their actions as necessary to protect the monarchy.

The Thai background is a long and complicated story, and is too often left out of mainstream media reports of the Thai crisis. There has been a lot of praise in foreign media for the Abhisit Government’s handling of the crisis, showing restraint and sparing civilian casualties.

But since local media reporting heavier casualties have been censored, and there are no independent investigation, who knows what the story really is?

Partial justice
The “restraint” shown must be seen in comparison with the lack of action against the PAD. It then becomes obvious that Thailand has a partial “justice” system – that goes after red shirts, Thaksin and his supporters and turns a blind eye to crimes carried out by the military (the 2006 coup being an obvious one) and yellow shirts.

Rarely is the term “monarchy” used in foreign media, without descriptors attached such as “much revered”, “Buddha-like”, “loved” and “immensely popular”. How can journalists know this when criticism can lead to long prison terms?

In contrast, international media overwhelmingly condemns the actions of the Fiji government.

Thai and Fiji islanders have woken up to a new era of shadowy rule of law. This is a challenge for local and foreign journalists alike, who will have to walk carefully.

Picture: Thai anti-censorship protesters at Pantip Plaza, a popular IT mall, during a previous rally. Photo: Global Voices.

Violet Cho is the Asian Journalism Fellow at AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre.

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