On May 27, junta troops barged into Bangkok’s exclusive Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand and seized a fugitive politician even as journalists were interviewing him.
The soldiers hustled Chaturon Chaisang, the education minister in the deposed elected government, into a white van and drove him away for failing to obey last week's summons to appear at the regime's headquarters for questioning, leaving reporters gaping. Chaturon apparently faces the possibility of two years in jail for failing to report in.
However, ignoring the protection offered by the FCCT is the kind of tough action that coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha. the Thai army chief, has prescribed against what was one of the region’s freest press corps. Unprecedented pressure is being directed against journalists, with both Thai and foreign journalists singled out for intimidation.
Rugged soldiers armed with assault rifles and wearing helmets, green camouflage uniforms and bullet-proof vests have positioned themselves inside the editorial offices of the local Nation newspaper and other media, insisting they can control the flow of published information. Three senior Nation editors were summoned yesterday by the junta and ordered to tone down reporting and commentary.
All local and international media are prohibited from reporting "distorted" information which "could cause social division and unrest," or "widespread fear," Prayuth's newly named National Council for Peace and Order declared. Prayuth told the media to muzzle themselves because his junta is now inspecting publications, radio and TV broadcasts, and the Internet to find forbidden quotes, analysis and other news considered taboo.
"If the media does not abide by our restrictions, we will not hesitate to summon the media to create an understanding," Prayuth told journalists at the Army Club in Bangkok. "If you do not want me to do that, then please exercise self-control. We will begin our media monitoring today. From now onward, whoever posts information that creates conflict, we will take action."
Accordingly TrueVisions, one of Thailand's biggest cable TV providers, announced on May 26 that it had cancelled all broadcasts of CNN, CNBC, BBC, Bloomberg, China's CCTV and other stations because it was impossible to monitor their content.
The government followed though later in the day, summoning 19 editors and publishers to a meeting discuss news coverage in an “abnormal situation,” while Prayuth threatened news organizations with closure if they used Facebook pages to “fan the conflict” or to undermine peace and public order.
Those sending representatives to the meeting included Bangkokbiznews, Khoasod, Khomchadluek, Daily News, Thai Rath, Thai Post, Naewna, Banmuang, Bangkok Post, Bangkok Today, Prachachat, Manager, Thansettakij, Post Today, Matichon, Dailyworldtoday and Siam Rath.
According to the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, 14 stations accused of broadcasting “biased” news reports will not be allowed back on the air unless they undertake not to disturb the peace and public order. Unlicensed community radio stations must apply for authorization from the NCPO before they can resume broadcasting.
“The country is in the grip of numerous restrictions on freedom of information and attempts to manipulate the media, according to the press protection organization.
American Ambassador Kristie Kenney complained to the world Tuesday about Prayuth's media censorship after the general threatened to punish anyone criticizing the week-old coup. The Twitter-savvy diplomat tweeted from her official @KristieKenney account on May 27: "Hoping to watch @CNN in Thailand? This is what you will see. #Blocked #RestoreMediaFreedom pic.twitter.com/zAXEnL4Xfs"
That picture link showed a local television screen displaying Thailand's TrueVisions cable TV advisory apologizing for not showing CNN. It was the ambassador's first direct public complaint about any of the coup's restrictions. That was met by a denunciation of what was deemed the ambassador’s interference in Thailand’s internal affairs:
"So you show explicitly that you and your boss are against our King's newly appointed government," said the first tweeted response to the statement, posted by @dr_charoen Charoen Charoenchai, and referring to US State Department Secretary John Kerry’s statement condemning the coup. A mix of other positive and negative reactions also appeared in sub-tweets to the ambassador's statement.
“Beware of false reports regarding alleged statements; the US remains concerned by #ThaiCoup and calls for immediate return to democracy," the @USEmbassyBKK account tweeted on May 25 after news stories and online criticism badgered America for its passive-aggressive relationship with Thailand.
The coup's aftermath has unleashed vicious verbal abuse by Thai security forces against foreign correspondents, loudly smearing them and their Thai wives with insults and threats.
"Look at the press in front of you, they are all foreigners who will get money and leave," a soldier ranted through a loudspeaker mounted atop an army Humvee during an anti-coup protest in Bangkok.
"The foreign correspondents are scoundrels. They are here to sell Thailand," he yelled. "Do you have foreigner husbands? Because you always take the side of the foreigner," he shouted at Thai women among the hundreds of protesters at Victory Monument.
Pro-junta supporters meanwhile hold signs -- pointedly in English -- at their rival rally sites which say: "Support Thai Army Operation," "National Peace and Order Come First" and, in response to the foreign media, "Did I Ask For Your Help? I Don't Think So."
Their pro-putsch parallel universe includes university students in various cities politely giving boxes of food and other generous aid to grateful troops.
The junta's fans flood Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with photos of soldiers helping emaciated flood victims, wounded civilians, elderly ladies and others in need of muscles and kindness.
"Prayuth asked me to tell you... when you ask questions that will be made public, please think about the questions carefully, as it is not time to answer those questions yet," Army secretary Maj. Gen. Polphat Wannaphak warned two Thai reporters on May 27.
The two journalists had been with colleagues at a brief, tense, news conference on May 26 in which Prayuth did not fully answer questions about the possibility of future elections, and whether he was going to appoint himself prime minister.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist