Opinion: Double Down on Media Censorship at Army-run TV5

"Thank you, Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, for giving a chance for Top News to continue working with TV5," reads an image posted on Top News Facebook page on Mar. 31, 2022. Sonthiyan Chuenruthainaitham, founder of Top News, can be seen doing a wai on the right. Image: Top News / Facebook

One of the most blatant on-air television news censorship took place on Monday. As army-run TV5 news host, subcontracted from far right Top News news agency, was talking about the Ukrainian war, it was taken off air. It was during the noon news bulletin. The on-air censorship lasted for 8 minutes.

The pro-Russian messages went blank.

It was blatant precisely because ‘normally’ news anchors would self-censor upon being ordered by the station management in advance. This was not the case with the Top News team, particularly Anchalee Paireerak, who is not the one to be told what to do easily. The Top News news anchor then announced on Tuesday that the team will pull out from the news production contract they had with TV5.

As if this is not disturbing enough, pro-democracy, left-wing, and pro-Ukraine elements in Thailand rejoiced on social media with ample schadenfreude ‘liberally’ expressed. To me it was a sad day, a day when even Thais who claim to be for liberty and equality have put their principle after their hatred toward Anchalee and the Top News team.

How can we foster and defend freedom of the press and freedom of expression when people who claim to be on the side of democracy and freedom rejoice at censorship, albeit against those who hold differing political views and values?

We would never know for sure who ordered the on-air censorship. Prominent military-beat reporter Wassana Nanuam suggested that it was Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai who earlier alerted Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-ocha about the overtly and very public pro-Russian stance of TV5 management, which is contradictory to Thailand’s public stance that is neutral.

The alarming signal was made public when TV5 president Gen. Rangsee Kitiyanasap announced last week that the station will pool state-controlled news from Russia sources on the war in Ukraine after meeting Russian Ambassador Yevgeny Tomikhin without mentioning Ukraine, only to abruptly cancel the press conference to defend its move and rush to the Ukrainian Embassy to meet with Charge d’affaires Olexandr Lysak in an attempt to restore the veneer of impartiality.

Rangsee resigned on Monday, the day the mid-air censorship occurred, but said the resignation was a personal decision. This suggests that someone more powerful was behind the move although Prayut later denied having anything to do with it.

There was a twist, however. By Friday, Top News management said it has decided to stay on and honour their one-year contract with TV5 after the army chief, Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, gave a blessing and thanked the army chief, who is ex officio chairman of the board of TV5.

Suddenly, the eight minutes news blackout was just an “internal communication” hitch and not an intentional and blatant act of censorship. A photo of Sonthiyan prostrating next the army chief was posted on Facebook on Friday by Top News, which happened to be the April Fool’s Day, by the way.

So all is well now? Absolutely not.

The latest scandal shows at least two very disturbing things: First, it demonstrates how TV5 has no regard for press freedom whatsoever while the Top News team is willing to suck it up. Second, and equally if not more disturbing, is the people on the other side of the political spectrum, who claim to be for freedom and democracy, who oppose the draconian lese majeste law, but were so willing to rejoice at the spectre of censorship against their media opponents.

They cannot seem to recognize that the principle applies to all, that you cannot defend freedom of the press and freedom of expression while both sides of the political divide keep supporting censorship against their political opponents and partisan media.

Some said Top News is fake news so they deserved to be censored. I say ultra-royalists also believe left-wing media are biased against the monarchy and disseminate exaggeratedly negative information about the monarchy and fake news. And the ultra-royalists would probably like to see left-wing media be censored as well.

Thai society will never enjoy true freedom of expression and freedom of the press when so many people on both sides of the political divide are so willing to support, or at least condone, censorship against those whom they oppose.

One cannot defend press freedom and free expression when one believes only one’s views is legitimate, true and while those false or doubtful should have no place in society. If you do not defend the rights of those whom you disagree with or think differently to speak, in the end, the society as a collective will have less and less freedom.

Defending Top News is thus not a matter of agreeing with them, or supporting Russian aggression, but about defending a very fundamental principle of free expression and free press that I hope Thai society can agree upon.

Without it, we would not have a social contract to agree upon. Calling for more censorship, who decides on our behalf what is fit to print, to watch and read, will only prolong the immature state of Thai citizens. People who end up demanding that they be treated as children vis-à-vis the state and experts will end up being controlled by Big Brother.

It is clear from the incident this week that such a goal is far from being realized in Thailand.