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Thailand has been ranked 137th in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, three places above its 2020 ranking at 140th, while the Covid-19 pandemic has been used to obstruct press freedom in many countries.

A placard saying "Media please present the truth" was placed on the car with a Channel 8 news sticker at a protest on 20 February 2021

The index, which was published on Tuesday (20 April) and evaluates the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories in 2020, found that 132 of the evaluated countries are classified as either having a “very bad,” “bad,” or “problematic” environment for press freedom, while only 12 countries are classified as being in a good situation, the fewest since the current evaluation method was adopted in 2013.

RSF also notes that, while its global indicator, which measures the level of press freedom worldwide, fell only 0.3% from what it was in 2020, it has fallen by 12% since the indicator was created in 2013.

The index analysis also noted that there is “a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage,” and that the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information and field reporting, and that journalists in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe had a harder time investigating and reporting sensitive stories.

For the Asia-Pacific region, RSF notes that authoritarian regimes have used the pandemic to “perfect their methods of totalitarian control of information while the “dictatorial democracies” have used it as a pretext for imposing especially repressive legislation with provisions combining propaganda and suppression of dissent.” Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Cambodia are among countries in the region classified as having a bad or very bad press freedom situation and whose governments have used the pandemic to “reinforce obstacles to the free flow of information.”  

RSF’s country page for Thailand notes that the March 2019 general election “made no difference to the control wielded by the elite surrounding Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the army general responsible for the 2014 coup,” who is now prime minister and defence minister, and that critics of the government are at risk of harsh consequences due to “draconian legislation and a justice system that follows orders.” The 2019 Cybersecurity Act poses an additional threat to freedom of information, while the lèse majesté law continues to be used against dissidents.

RSF also notes the scale of self-censorship among the Thai media, which is confirmed by the “coverage or non-coverage” of the 2020 pro-democracy demonstrations, and how monarchy reform, which is one of the movement’s key demands, has been “systematically erased from mainstream media coverage.” Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has been used by the government as justification for issuing a decree making the dissemination of information that is “false or capable of causing fear in the public” punishable by up to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, Malaysia falls 18 places in its ranking and is now ranked at 119th, the largest fall of any country evaluated in the Index, after an “anti-fake news” decree was adopted, allowing the government to “impose its own version of the truth.”

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government blocked 221 websites, including many leading news sites, in April 2020, claiming that they are combating fake news during the pandemic, while the military harasses journalists covering ethnic conflicts. However, the press freedom situation worsened following the February 2021 military coup, with the closure of many media outlets and mass arrests of journalists.

“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors. In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts.”  

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