In the run-up to May 3 each year there are always reports and analyses that highlight the “freedom” (or otherwise) of the media in countries around the world. Many are based on the most comprehensive annual effort to rank media “freedom” which is supported by US-based Freedom House. The methodology for their study is available here.

In Freedom House’s 2007 study, the United States is ranked equal 16th, the United Kingdom is equal 31st and Australia is equal 39th. The Scandinavian countries, and Belgium, fill the top spots. The media in all of these countries is considered “free”.

But what about the countries of mainland Southeast Asia that we focus on here at New Mandala? The relevant details are:

  • Equal 122nd: Cambodia (alongside Central African Republic, Nepal and Niger)
  • Equal 126th: Thailand (alongside Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya and Lebanon)
  • Equal 170th: Vietnam (alongside Burundi, Ethiopia and Gambia)
  • Equal 176th: Laos (alongside Sudan)
  • Equal 191st: Burma (occupying the second lowest rung alongside Cuba, Libya and Turkmenistan).

Of the countries in mainland Southeast Asia only Cambodia and Thailand are rated as “partly free”. A number of other countries that are regularly discussed on New Mandala, including Bhutan, Bangladesh, Singapore, China and North Korea, are classified alongside the other mainland Southeast Asian countries as “not free”.

In terms of these broad categories of “free”, “partly free” and “not free”, Thailand has a particularly interesting trajectory that can be plotted from a series of very useful historical maps (available here).

Thailand’s recent media history of media “freedom” is:

  • 1984: “Not free” (as was every country in Asia except India, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Japan)
  • 1989: “Partly free” (as was Malaysia)
  • 1994: “Partly free” (along with many former Eastern Bloc countries)
  • 1999: “Free” (very few other Asian countries were rated in this category at that time)
  • 2004: “Partly free”
  • 2007: “Partly free”

Now, in 2007, if Thailand’s ranking was to drop only fractionally more it would be back in the category of “not free”. New Mandala readers will have their own opinions about whether this is fair and whether the methodology takes into account the full range of local experiences. Thailand’s current position is, however, one indication that the comparative methodology employed by Freedom House – which uses “universal” standards – has accounted for the many restrictions on freedom of expression, and media freedom in particular, of the Thaksin and post-Thaksin eras.

Thailand’s ongoing movement between the three broad categories that are used by Freedom House make it an important case for anybody hoping to better understand the interaction of politics, “freedom” and the media.

As always, New Mandala reader comments and thoughts on the Freedom House analysis, or on the “freedom” of the media in Thailand more generally, are very welcome.