In a bizarre move highlighting the pressures journalists are facing worldwide, Thailand’s prime minister on Monday assigned a life-size cardboard mock-up of himself to respond to tough questions by journalists.
“If you want to ask any questions on politics or conflict,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was quoted as saying by the Associated Press, “ask this guy.”
After installing it behind the microphone from where he had been expected to answer questions, Prayuth then walked away. The cardboard cutouts were reportedly produced for Thailand’s Children's Day, and some journalists reacted with laughter as others took selfies.
But Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, strongly criticized the incident Tuesday, saying that it was part of a “long list of his bizarre and bullying reactions to reporters.”
According to the Associated Press, Prayuth had previously thrown a banana peel at journalists and threatened others with execution, in what appeared to be a particularly tasteless joke.
Press freedom has declined in Thailand and around the world in recent years, according to the press liberties watchdogs Article 19 and Freedom House, and intimidation and threats were not limited to authoritarian regimes. President Trump frequently lashes out at what he calls “fake news” and is now even initiating a “Fake News Award,” which he said in a tweet would be “going to the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media.” Trump also was notorious during his presidential campaign for inciting crowds against the journalists present at his rallies.
Last October, the Czech president waved a mock rifle at journalists during a news conference.
For his part, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened journalists in widely condemned remarks, too. As a candidate, he was quoted as saying, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” When Duterte later met with Trump, his U.S. counterpart chuckled after Duterte called journalists “spies.”
Then, last July during a photo opportunity, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is frequently accused of undermining press freedom in his country, pointed at journalists in the room and asked Trump: “These are the ones hurting you?” Trump responded: “These are the ones. You're right about that.”
The fear is that threats against the media by world leaders such as Trump will only further embolden the Thai leadership — and other governments — to impose more restrictions on journalists. Prayuth recently referred to “fake news,” deploying rhetoric similar to Trump’s.
Freedom House classifies Thailand as “not free,” writing on its website that the military government “has systematically used censorship, intimidation, and legal action to suppress journalists and media outlets.”
“Authorities aggressively enforce defamation and lèse majesté laws, and have summoned journalists for meetings at which they are pressured to stop producing coverage critical of the NCPO,” Freedom House reported, referring to the Thai military junta known as the National Council for Peace and Order.
Human rights organization Amnesty International called the developments a “spiral into silence.”
Prayuth came to power in 2014 following a military coup, initially conceived as a temporary solution to a tumultuous period in Thai history marked by street protests. But promised elections have repeatedly been delayed, and Prayuth’s government has expanded its powers instead.
On Tuesday, the country’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Prayuth’s predecessor, Yingluck Shinawatra, is now in Britain, where she sought refuge about a year ago. The former prime minister was previously sentenced to five years in prison on charges of negligence in a trial conducted in absentia.
Critics allege that the trial was politically motivated and unfair, but their voices are unlikely to be widely reflected in Thai media, which is now banned from expressing opinions “inconsistent with the truth,” according to a vaguely worded 2016 Referendum Act.