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Thailand is ranked 140th in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, four places below its 2019 ranking at 136th, while hyper-control and nationalist populism threaten press freedom in the Asia-Pacific.  

The Index, which launched yesterday (22 April), found that the past decade has seen “a steep decline” in press freedom in the Asia-Pacific, due to “the adoption of undemocratic and totalitarian practices, the emergence of a populism that unleashes hatred on journalists, and extreme media polarization.”

The region saw the greatest rise in violations of press freedom, which is now under threat in every Asia-Pacific country, says the Index. Australia, previously a regional model, fell five places from its 2019 ranking after federal police raided a journalist’s home and the state TV broadcaster’s headquarters, posing “ a serious threat to investigative reporting and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources” and drawing the Australian public’s attention to their constitution’s complete lack of a guarantee for their right to information.

Meanwhile, China, now ranked at 177th out of the 180 countries in the Index, “never stops enhancing its system of information hyper-control and prosecution of dissident journalists and bloggers.” In February 2020, the Chinese authorities arrested two citizens for their coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, and it is currently holding around 100 journalists in prison.

Other countries in the region continue to exert control over freedom of information. Singapore’s new ‘anti-fake news’ law caused it fall 7 places from last year’s ranking. Brunei, now ranked at 152nd, added to its criminal code the death penalty for “any written or spoken statement deemed to have blasphemed Islam.” Lao’s crackdown on its rising circle of bloggers caused it to fall back one place. Meanwhile, Cambodia fell one place and Thailand fell four places due to their regimes’ crackdowns on dissent.

Thailand’s ranking places it among nations in “difficult situation” and behind countries including Myanmar, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. Mongkol Bangprapa, the President of the Thai Journalist Association, told Khaosod English that, while he has not seen the RSF’s criteria, he suspected that the RSF may have considered Thailand’s political change less drastic than that of Myanmar, and that he thought Thailand’s lower ranking could be because the RSF take the situations both under the pre- and the post-election governments into consideration, and it wasn’t until March 2019 that Thailand had a general election.

According to the RSF website, which details the methodology behind the ranking, the Index uses both qualitative analysis and qualitative data on abuses and violence against journalists during the period being evaluated. The Index “evaluates the situation for journalists each year in 180 countries and territories.” Its 2020 edition is, therefore, an evaluation of the press freedom situation during 2019.  

The degree of press freedom in each country is also determined through the responses of experts to the RSF’s questionnaire, targeted at media professionals, lawyers, and sociologists asked to complete it by the RSF. The criteria evaluated by the questionnaire include “pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.” The scores are calculated based on the responses to the questionnaire combined with the data on abuses and violence against journalists, collected by a team of specialists assigned to each region.

The Thailand page on the RSF website acknowledged the disbandment of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in 2019. It also states, however, that the March 2019 general election “made no difference to the total control wielded by the elite surrounding Gen. Prayuth,” as “draconian legislation and a justice system that follows order” still pose a threat to critique of the government. A cyber-security law adopted in February 2019 also poses an additional threat to online information, while the threat of a lèse majesté charge continues to be used as “a weapon of mass deterrence.”

Belgian journalist detained by Thai police; warned against plan to interview activist, 5 October 2019

Thai reporter sentenced to jail in Thammakaset libel case, 25 December 2019

Artist arrested for posting “Suvarnabhumi Airport has no screening for Covid-19” while in 14-day self-quarantine after his return from Spain, 27 March 2020

“These alternative authoritarian systems…accompanied by an increase in a ‘national-populism’ that tolerates no critical journalism, regarding it as ‘anti-government’ and, by extension, ‘anti-national’ pose challenges to press freedom in the region, says the report, leading to attacks on reporters in several countries. In Hong Kong, for example, journalists have been the target of police violence during the pro-democracy demonstrations, causing it to fall seven places from its 2019 ranking and is now ranked at 80th.

The report also noted that the internet has become a “major battleground in the information war” and that “physical attacks against journalists are often accompanied or preceded by online threats from troll armies and click farms.” Nevertheless, the media can play “an absolutely decisive role in ensuring that democracies function as they should, especially during elections.” Malaysia rose 22 places in the ranking, one of the biggest rises in the 2020 Index, following its change of government – a demonstration of “the dramatic effect that a change of government through the polls can have in improving the environment for journalists and combatting self-censorship.”

In “confirmed democracies,” such as in South Korea, however, governments are still using national security as a reason for restricting press freedom, and the concentration of media ownership, such as the cases of Japan, Taiwan, and New Zealand, continues to pose a threat to press freedom in the region’s democratic countries, showing that “regardless of where in the world you want to exercise the right to press freedom, you have to keep fighting for it.”

“A decisive decade for journalism”

The Index suggests that “the next ten years will be pivotal for press freedom” due to the effect of converging areas of crisis, from geopolitical and technological to democratic, economic, and a crisis of trust, combined with a global public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are entering a decisive decade for journalism linked to crises that affect its future,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor. What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”

Deloire added that the COVID-19 pandemic gave authoritarian governments an opportunity to take advantage of a situation during which politics is put on hold and the public is “stunned” and unable to protest and use it to impose measures that would otherwise be impossible. The report’s findings also suggest that there is a “clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country’s ranking in the Index.” China, ranked at 177th, and Iran, which fell 3 places in the ranking and is now ranked at 173rd, extensively censored their major COVID-19 outbreaks. In Iraq, which fell 6 places, the authorities suppressed Reuters’ media license for three months following a story questioning the official COVID-19 figures. Meanwhile, in Hungary, which fell 2 places, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had a “coronavirus law” passed which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison for false information.

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“For this decisive decade to not be a disastrous one, people of goodwill, whoever they are, must campaign for journalists to be able to fulfil their role as society’s trusted third parties,” said Deloire, “which means they must have the capacity to do so.”

On the occasion of the launch of the 2020 Index, the RSF had planned the virtual conference “Journalism in crisis: a decisive decade" featuring Rappler editor-in-chief Maria Ressa, whistleblower Edward Snowden, Washington Post contributor Rana Ayyub, Nobel economics prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, and RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire. However, technological issues prevented the event from being broadcast as planned. The platform Crowdcast told the RSF that it experienced “time out issues” with its servers, which caused issues with the event and its recording.

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