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Internet, Satellite Communications Widen Political Debate in Thailand


Thailand has undergone a quiet revolution as satellite broadcasters and the Internet have challenged traditional broadcast outlets to lead the political debate. There are concerns the government now wants to undercut these new challengers.

Back in 2005, when Thai media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul began airing his rallies against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, like this one, he led a technical revolution in Thailand's political debate.

Sondhi used his ASTV network to place his speeches on the Internet, and then re-fed it to Thailand via satellite television, taking politics to a wider segment of the population.

Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics, says Sondhi took advantage of loopholes in Thailand's broadcast laws. Baker says that placed the message beyond the government's control.

"The ability to broadcast a signal over the Internet outside Thailand, so that it could be uploaded legally to a satellite, and that really made a huge change because the government didn't have the legal means to control that," he said. "Suddenly you had a level of political debate on television you had never seen before."

The government has almost total control over the broadcast airwaves. And during Mr. Thaksin's government, he set about putting limits on the print media, which had for decades set the tone for political debate.

Sondhi's ASTV galvanized support for his effort to oust Mr. Thaksin, especially among the urban middle class, which considered the prime minister corrupt and authoritarian. Eventually, Mr. Thaksin was removed in a coup in 2006 and now lives in exile.

But Mr. Thaksin remains influential in Thai politics. And the former telecommunications entrepreneur in turn uses technology to encourage his supporters - primarily rural residents and the urban poor. Frequently in the past six months he has addressed rallies via satellite and Internet connections, urging his backers, known as Red Shirts, to press for new elections.

Some of those backers have created Democratic TV - DTV - to broadcast their rallies via the Internet and small community radio stations.

Thepchai Yong, a director of the Thailand Public Broadcast Service, says while ASTV and DTV are at extreme points of the political spectrum, their existence is positive.

"They have helped raise the people's awareness of what is going on politically," said Thepchai. "Certain people believe the mainstream media are not doing a good enough job, so this is why they have to turn to this alternative media."

But the government has grown wary of satellite transmissions and the Internet, particularly after Red Shirt riots rocked Bangkok in April, and forced the cancellation of regional summit meeting.

Immediately after the riots, the authorities blocked transmissions on DTV, community radio stations and several websites.

But by mid-June pro-Thaksin groups had set up a new satellite channel, while community radio stations were again transmitting. A new newspaper has even been introduced.

Despite the use of technology to spread political debate, Thailand's reputation for independent media has fallen over recent years. In 2009, the civic advocacy group Freedom House in New York ranked Thailand's media freedoms as 122nd in a survey of 195 countries. In 2000, Thailand was 29th.

In 2007, laws governing the Internet were toughened, and thousands of Web sites accused of insulting the Thai monarchy have been blocked or shutdown.

Authorities also have blocked Web sites favorable to Mr. Thaksin.

Media activist Supinya Klangnarong says the fight over media freedom has shifted away from print to the Internet. She says about 1,000 Web sites have been blocked, and that people convicted of breaching the Internet laws could face prison.

"I think the climate of fear and the way to control them in the online media is increasing," said Supinya.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said he wants to promote Thailand as a hub of regional press freedom. Mr. Abhisit says the government will try to avoid shutting down Web sites - especially those deemed offensive to the monarchy - but instead take legal action against them.

The struggle over political debate in Thailand having shifted to the Internet, Supinya sees Thai governments in the future coming under growing pressure as more people go on-line to air their views, which many felt have been overlooked by traditional broadcast media

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