BANGKOK — Thailand slipped in its press freedom index to 140 out of the 180 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Border – one rank behind Myanmar, a country many Thais associated with authoritarianism.
The 2020 index, released on Tuesday, put Thailand among nations in “difficult situation”, which is one category above the lowest ranking nations in “very serious situation”. Countries described as doing better than Thailand under PM Prayut Chan-o-cha include Myanmar (139), South Sudan (137), and Afghanistan (122).
The report by the Paris-based organization briefly mentions Thailand in its analysis, saying Thailand and Cambodia, ranked 144th, are among regimes in the region that “have managed to enhance their system of cracking down on dissent”.
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When reached for comment, Thai Journalist Association Mongkol Bangprapa said he has not yet seen the criteria used in the report yet, but he suspected Thailand’s gain after the 2019 election might not be as significant as improvements in Myanmar.
“They may appraise Myanmar by taking into consideration the fact that Myanmar had a political reversal after elections,” Mongkol said. “Thailand the [political] change wasn’t that drastic.”
He also suspected that the group may take considerations from situations under both the pre- and post-election governments. Thailand did not return to a democracy-based rule until March 2019, nearly five years after the coup led by Gen. Prayut.
Mongkol added that perhaps Thailand’s lower ranking stemmed from the fact that it wasn’t until March last year when Thailand held general elections and the ranking may have taken both the period under the military rule and after the general elections into consideration.
Thai Netizen Network co-founder Sarinee Achavanuntakul said she wasn’t surprised by the ranking.
Sarinee, whose organization monitors freedom and privacy issues on the internet, said the government’s latest interference in free speech is the introduction of an “anti fake news center,” which she said ended up being used as a tool against dissent.
“It’s not impartial,” she said. “Now, fake news amounts to illegality.”
At the top of the Reporters Without Border’s survey are Norway, Finland, and Denmark. The United States came in at 45, the United Kingdom 35, France 35 and Germany 11.
In the ASEAN region, Vietnam came last at 175th place followed by Laos at 172. Malaysia is ranked at 101, the Philippines at 136, Singapore 158, Indonesia 119 and Brunei at 152.
Although Thailand is still far from countries in “very serious situation” category like North Korea (at the bottom, 180) and China (177), Sarinee said media professionals haven’t done enough to push for press freedom.
She cited a recent silence from Thai media guilds toward the government’s curfew, which bars reporters from going out to observe the operations and report the news. Sarinee also expressed concerns at the “cozy” relationship between Thai media and state-controlled Chinese media.
But Mongkol defended the decision by TJA to refrain from protesting the government’s curfew order, saying a majority of the board members sees the ban as a measure to protect reporters as well as members of the public from the coronavirus.