Thai media decide junta chief no laughing matter

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses the nation on Dec 23, 2015.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses the nation on Dec 23, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Every New Year Thailand's top political journalists traditionally come up with satirical nicknames for the government and senior ministers. But this year they will forego the pleasure, having decided the junta is no laughing matter.

The occasion is usually a rare moment of light relief for reporters covering the febrile world of Thai politics, in a country which has witnessed a string of military coups, violent street protests and toppled governments - and where defamation is a criminal offence.

But this year, in a statement, the Government House press corps said they were opting to stay mum because "the cabinet of (Prime Minister) General Prayut Chan-o-cha came into power by special way, not by the normal election under the democratic system".

The statement added that it was normal for the press corps to take such steps with coup governments, or during times of political upheaval.

"We also do not want the 2015 skipping of the nicknaming to be used to expand existing conflicts in Thai society or to be used as a political tool by any groups or individuals," the statement read.

However the decision is illustrative of an increased need for self-censorship since the military took over.

Former army chief Prayut seized power in May 2014 toppling the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra after months of debilitating street protests against her administration, fuelled by support from Bangkok's pro-military, royalist elite and middle classes.

Prayut has since stifled dissent, jailing or summoning critics and ramping up use of the country's draconian lese majeste law.

Yingluck's administration was one year dubbed the "Floundering Crab" government by journalists, a pun on her personal nickname "Bpoo", which means crab in Thai.

Prayut is known for his off-the-cuff remarks, particularly when dealing with the media. He famously threw a banana peel at one reporter and stroked another on the head.

Both incidences he wrote off as the result of his zany sense of humour and friendly demeanour.

He also referred to executing critical journalists, a comment he insisted was a joke once headlines went viral.

At a speech earlier this month, Prayut complained that he felt unable to be himself because the Thai media didn't understand his jokes.

"This has been a year where I cannot make jokes because the media will just turn it into a news story," he said.

It seems Thai journalists know how he feels.