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On World Press Freedom Day, Prachatai and UNESCO organised a panel discussion on Press Freedom in Thailand after the NCPO Junta and the Next Step towards Protection, to reflect on the deterioration in global press freedom and the problem of the justice system being used to silence the media, especially in Thailand.

The panel discussed the current situation where the media is still facing the threat of legal prosecution, especially in the form of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs

Jo Hiranaka, Programme Coordinator of UNESCO Bangkok, gave the opening remarks on the threats that environmental journalists have encountered, noting that over 749 journalists were assaulted during the last 15 years, with 44 of them being murdered. In only 5 cases were the perpetrators brought to justice. There have also been reports of an increasing number of assaults on journalists in the past 5 years and growing self-censorship due to the fear of being attacked.

In Thailand, there are also an increasing number of lawsuits to silence the media, using of legal procedures to violate rights, even though freedom of expression, press freedom, and freedom of access to information are guaranteed in the Constitution and the country is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

Georgina Lloyd from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noted that environmental journalists have been subjected to various forms of intimidation, including legal prosecution and murder, when covering deforestation, illegal hunting, and water resource allocation. During 2012 – 2022, 1,910 environment defenders around the world were murdered. Lloyd said people should be entitled to access environmental information, which is crucial for addressing environmental issues and achieving a sustainable future.

Advocacy Officer from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia Pacific Bureau Aleksandra Bielakowska stated that the average level of press freedom in 180 countries is declining, based on the recently released Press Freedom Index. In this age, journalists also face a situation where political figures exploit the media to disseminate disinformation by using deepfake technology.

The representative from RSF commented that press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region has worsened as the authoritarian governments in this region tighten their grip on power and implement austerity measures on news information. 28 journalists were killed, with nearly half being environmental journalists in India. 

It is found that the threats to media freedom in Southeast Asian countries mainly stem from actions by state officials, with over 60% of incidents involving physical assaults. In Thailand, 46 cases involved physical, digital, and legal intimidation against journalists, according to Anna Lawattanatrakul, Prachatai English’s editor and Press Freedom Monitoring in Southeast Asia project (PFMSEA) coordinator.

Anna remarked that enacting a law to protect journalists is necessary, but it must be done carefully, especially when defining the term “media” in this era. If the definition does not cover those working in non-traditional or independent media, these people will be excluded from protection. Having mechanisms to prevent courts from accepting SLAPP cases might not be sufficient. Anna asserted that the root cause must be addressed, which is abolishing criminal defamation and leaving it as a civil law matter.

Anna said no one should be imprisoned for expressing their opinions or reporting the facts. If journalists commit wrongdoing, they are subjected to criticism or sued for damages within reasonable boundaries, but imprisonment should not be an option.

Thitipan Pattanamongkol, editor of the book “The Public Dreams of Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”, revealed that what environmental journalists report often affects the interests of both the public and private sectors, making them a target group for SLAPP lawsuits. When prosecuted, it is difficult for them to continue their work. However, some still fight the lawsuit to uphold the media’s right and freedom of access to information. Even though such cases may eventually be dismissed by the court, it affects journalists as they have to invest time and money in the legal battle.

Thitipan proposed the following measures: (1) journalists should examine their own biases and push the boundaries of their work to protect the public interest, (2) editorial boards must foster a proper atmosphere for their journalists, (3) the media industry must report on various issues so that outlets covering environmental matters will not become isolated.

MP Pukkamon Nunarnan from the Move Forward Party (MFP), a Member of Parliament and of the House Standing Committee on Political Development, Mass Communications and Public Participation, stated that the demands for press freedom have improved compared to 2010-2011 due to increased public awareness, but those working in the media industry still hesitate to stand up for themselves, as doing so sometimes jeopardises their jobs, especially when their employers do not support them to fight for their rights. 

The MP said she proposed to the labour wing of the party that any amendment to the labour law must include provision for media workers, as these people face various kinds of pressure which prevent them from demanding their rights. She believed that a law to protect their basic rights would empower them to maintain their freedom in reporting. 

Pukkamon also proposed that the government should clearly demonstrate its stance in protecting the media. She raised concern that when the issue was brought up in parliament, the government did not answer questions nor give a clear stance. The MFP has drafted a new law to address SLAPP, but it is likely to take time for approval. Pukkamon noted that she would like journalists and media outlets to be involved in refining the draft before it is forwarded to parliament.

SLAPP is simply an intimidation tactic against the media and is often employed after journalists have previously faced other forms of intimidation. SLAPP affects not only journalists but also those who work in civil society organisations and activists. In some cases, journalists are threatened or told to delete news reports before legal action is taken against them. This leads to underreported cases where no lawsuit is officially recorded, according to Sanhawan Srisod from the International Commission of Jurists.

Sanhawan revealed that SLAPPs occur because of loopholes in the law, especially the provision that makes defamation a crime, making it easier for those who want to sue others. The authorities consider only the elements of the offence, which is broadly proscribed in the law. She stated that the law should be amended, such as removing the criminal penalty for defamation, since serious criminal penalties are considered a form of intimidation, and are not in line with international standards based on human rights such as the right to freedom of expression.

Since 2019 there has been a law to address SLAPP cases, which allows the courts to consider whether to accept lawsuits or not. Sanhawan said the law is rarely used and it is available only in cases that directly pass through the court, not those initiated by public prosecutors. Some judges feel that the law grants them too much power, making them uncomfortable in using it, so they prefer to have a preliminary hearing before proceeding further. Few cases are in fact dismissed at this stage because rejecting cases is more cumbersome than accepting them. Due to the short time frame for consideration, judges often pass the case forward for further consideration, and the judge who is responsible for the final decision might be different from the one who initially accepted the case.

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