UNESCO co-organizes World Press Freedom Day event in Thailand highlighting freedom of expression as key driver of human rights
By Chairat Chongvattanakij
UNESCO Bangkok joined in global commemorations of the 30th Anniversary of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2023 by co-organizing with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) a panel discussion of regional specialists discussing a shrinking civic space and its impact on journalism and the broader human rights situation in Thailand.
The event took place at the headquarters of the FCCT in downtown Bangkok on the evening of 3 May and featured a keynote speech by Joe Hironaka, chief of the Communication and Information unit of UNESCO Bangkok. The keynote was followed by presentations and discussion by panellists Yingcheep Atchanont, programme manager of the human rights NGO Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw); Thapanee Eadsrichai, veteran journalist and founder of the independent Thai online news agency The Reporters; Jonathan Head, Thailand-based BBC correspondent; Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia; and Panu Wongcha-um, a senior correspondent for Reuters.
Regulating free expression
In introductory remarks, Panu Wongcha-um, of Reuters, noted that although Thailand recently improved its standing on the 2023 World Press Freedom Index as compiled by Reporters sans frontières [Reporters without Borders], civic space is shrinking both in Thailand as well as throughout South-East Asia, a concerning situation underscoring that ‘a world without a viable press cannot expect to be free.’
In his keynote speech UNESCO’s Mr Hironaka reminded the audience that Thailand has the distinction of being among the original signatories to the UN’s postwar Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in which Article 19 sets out broad guarantees for freedom of expression ‘through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ As a cautionary note in regard to the larger region, the BBC’s Jonathan Head pointed out that authoritarian regimes are increasingly serving as alternative role models to democracy, and that South-East Asian governments may be inclined to emulate them through tightening media regulation which is often advanced on the pretext of maintaining public safety or combatting ‘disinformation’.
UN Special Rapporteur and educator Vitit Muntarbhorn cautioned the audience that whenever a single entity like the state becomes the arbiter of ‘so-called truth’, the result is ‘often no more or no less than propaganda and dogma.’ Like Mr Head, professor Vitit underscored the problem of excessive legislation, including emergency decrees which, while promoted by governments as necessary for public well-being and safety, have been recently criticized for not meeting international standards of legality, necessity and proportionality.
The issues at stake for Thailand are especially pertinent, as Thailand is also a state party to the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; 1966), Article 19 of which guarantees freedom of expression.
The intimidation of journalists
It was on this year’s World Press Freedom Day, ironically, that veteran journalist and founder of The Reporters Ms Thapanee Eadsrichai received a summons for defamation, which is a criminal offence in Thailand. She explained that the charges were due to news coverage that referred to an influential politician in a negative light. According to Mr Head, such criminal defamation cases are rarely dismissed by Thai courts, effectively stifling investigative journalism altogether.
On a more sanguine note, Mr Yingcheep Atchanont, of iLaw, observed that certain stringent Thai laws – hitherto considered a taboo subject in public discourse – were being more openly discussed in recent political debates, perhaps signalling a change for the better in the Thai civic space.
According to Professor Vitit, however, any true path forward should involve motivating judicial actors to refrain from applying such laws in the first place. Only then could a fruitful conversation about their abrogation be initiated. Professor Vitit additionally urged the UN to call for a global moratorium on child imprisonment and the criminal prosecution of defamation.
Reporting without fear or favour
Mr Head commented that journalists now operate in a difficult environment where they must remain vigilant on two fronts simultaneously. On one hand, they must strive to achieve a delicate balance between commercial viability and public interest without fear or favour; on the other, journalists must strive to be commonly recognized as professionals delivering reliable and accurate information with integrity, all the more so in an increasingly polarized society in which ‘everyone is entitled to their own facts.’
At certain turns, freedom of expression for uncompromising journalists must be earned through their mustering the sheer will and courage to overcome persistent obstacles, such as when Ms Thapanee had to disguise herself as a villager and undertake a gruelling eight-hour journey to the Thai-Myanmar border to obtain a firsthand account of the humanitarian situation of homeless migrants. ‘When people are voicing their concerns, and you, as a journalist, do not speak up for them, you should not be a journalist,’ she asserted.
Safeguarding press freedom
UNESCO’s own role in defending and fostering freedom of expression requires the skillful application of both financial and professional resources. The UNESCO-administered Global Media Defence Fund (GMDF) has since its founding in 2019 supported over a thousand cases of legal assistance to journalists in distress worldwide. UNESCO guidelines and professional toolkits have been used since 2013 to train well over 25,000 judicial actors and over 11,000 law enforcement and security officials on issues related to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in more than 150 countries. Since 2022, UNESCO has conducted in-person training that brought together media professionals and police officers in 12 countries, including Thailand, for the express purposes of enhancing mutual understanding and safety of journalists in times of societal upheaval, and when operating under tense conditions of civic unrest.
The panel discussion at FCCT was one of several events organized in Thailand to mark the 30th Anniversary of World Press Freedom Day. In advance of the Thai national elections, the UNESCO Bangkok Office was joined with the Thai Journalists Association and Cofact Thailand in inviting five major political party representatives to discuss ‘the right to freedom of the press from the point of view of Thai political parties.’ UNESCO also joined in congratulating laureates of a photojournalist competition on the theme of #liberty of the press and freedom of the people.
Chairat Chongvattanakij is a Consultant for the Public Information and Outreach (PIO) team of the UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok.
Photo credits: Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT)