After weeks of rumors, it was not soldiers in the streets that signalled to Thais that a coup was finally under way.
The uniform playing of royalist songs over all the country's TV and radio networks is what had the people sending text messages to each other and logging on to MSN. Even when CNN broke images of tanks rolling into Bangkok, without official confirmation CNN could only speculate as to what was probable. But it was the sudden interruption of those images and the blacking out of all news channels on cable that gave Thailand the real news.
Thais have seen coups before, and they've learned to read the signs. The media, in particular, has always been a reliable indicator of change in the air.
The very relationship that Thaksin had with the Thai press - one of the freest and most vibrant in Asia - had been held as the most concrete proof that the man was an enemy of democracy. Thaksin was portrayed as greedy and power-hungry, as evidenced by designs to install a one-party system alongside private investments that tended to monopolize every industry they touched. But as to the charge that he was a tyrant, what stuck was his heavy-handed dealings with journalists.
Thaksin demonized the media and harassed them in court. He tried to buy them out or squeeze them dry. Even small community radio operations - and even experiments in more progressive online newscasting - sounded the alarm over a clampdown targeting the most vocal among them. Thaksin feigned innocence, called for elections and portrayed himself a product of democracy and not its enemy.
But the press was the crucial indicator of where Thai democracy stood and where it was headed. Now that Thaksin has been removed, it must still be appreciated as that. The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) has assured Thailand that it does not intend to hold onto power. The pledge is to step aside for some form of civilian authority within two weeks, call for elections and a new constitution within a year, all while committing to ultimate democracy and healing the nation.
Most Thais seem genuinely happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. But questions are being asked. How shall power be handed over to civilians? If elections are a year away, what shall the relationship be between the new interim government and the military? What guarantee, indeed, will Thais have that this will all lead to democracy?
People find assurance in the fact that the CDRM now has the blessing of their monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. For perhaps a more objective litmus test, however, observers would be well-advised to also keep watching the country's media environment.
The CDRM's pledge to ultimately step aside for democracy's return must immediately be measured against its willingness to allow Thais the means to take part in that process. That means assuring them of their right to speak - to each other, to society at large, to the international community, to the CDRM itself. To do this meaningfully, the people will need their phones and e-mail, continuing access to diverse and independent news over the Internet and, finally, access to mass media in all forms. The press must be allowed to do its job, and the people must have their information.
In fairness, a few days into the coup, local and foreign journalists seemed to enjoy unrestricted movement in the country notwithstanding the imposition of martial law – although the junta is how making unspecified threats that unidentified foreign journalists are printing overly sensitive reports. Thais also do seem to have continuing access to the Internet, a vital source of diverse and independent news. Newspapers are coming off the presses at their usual output.
But it is already certain that the CDRM's tolerance has limits. TV stations have been ordered to stop posting people's short text messages about the coup. Censorship rules are in place for all media. The official reminder that the interim government has the power to filter news - especially where former PM Thaksin and anti-coup sentiments are concerned - underscore an instability and unpredictability in the media environment. The Internet, meanwhile, will be a crucial proving ground. Thais have access to the Web, but the technology has long been in place to filter websites - ostensibly against pornography - and there is a new warning to webmasters that they will be accountable for any and all content they allow to be posted on Thailand's popular Web boards.
At the end of the day, therefore, the acknowledged "normalcy" in the working environment for journalists continues largely at the behest and tolerance of the CDRM. Under such an atmosphere, therefore, self-censorship is an inevitable problem, and Thais may ultimately be deprived of diverse, independent information necessary to be meaningful partners in a truly democratic movement.
The CDRM is asking for patience and understanding. It urges media responsibility and prudence. But the CDRM, too, must be burdened with demonstrating its sincerity to the media and the public.
Such a demonstration from the CDRM must go beyond tolerance. It must officially assure that it will keep its hands off the media which, in any case, until three days ago had been acknowledged by the anti-Thaksin movement as a victim and not a threat. Until three days ago, the free press was one of the sectors that needed rescuing, not further control.
To signal a change in that relationship now would be inconsistent with the democratic rationale for the coup. In abnormal times, the media is the canary in the mines. (Or, even to its critics, at least the frog in the pond.) Wherever and whenever the press is weakened, society has learned to understand that there is something worrisome in the air.
Roby Alampay is executive director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance