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Thai Journalists Criticize Shinawatra's Government - 2001-08-09

Thai journalists are criticizing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government for conducting what they call a vigorous campaign to muzzle the press. The accusations raise serious questions about the ability of the Thai media to remain one of the freest in Asia.

The two main journalists' associations in Thailand have angrily denounced the government, saying it is increasingly pressuring journalists to refrain from printing or broadcasting stories critical of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thai journalists say, this week, the Bangkok police department sent warning letters to several media organizations. Attempts to reach the police for comment were unsuccessful.

But according to a radio station and a business newspaper that received the warning, the letters said negative stories they had aired and printed about Mr. Thaksin's recent court case were irresponsible acts that threatened political stability.

On Friday, Thailand's highest court voted to dismiss charges that the billionaire prime minister deliberately concealed the full extent of his assets while serving under a previous government. Several media outlets subsequently criticized the court's decision to drop the charges.

The vice president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, Thepchai Yong, says he fears Thailand is sliding back to the days when military rulers routinely clamped down on free expression. "What is happening now is very discouraging. After the promulgation of the Constitution in 1997, we believed that the country was moving toward democracy, where freedom of expression is guaranteed constitutionally," he says. "But what the government is doing now is dangerous, using the media for political purposes, and opposition views are not allowed to be aired on broadcast media."

This is not the first time Prime Minister Thaksin has been accused of trying to manipulate the media.

In February, Thailand's lone private television channel, which is partially owned by a holding company controlled by Mr. Thaksin's family, fired 23 employees who had complained that the station was being used to support Mr. Thaksin's political party during January's general elections.

The move drew immediate protests from the regional Southeast Asian Press Alliance group, which urged the new Thaksin government to set a tone of openness, freedom and transparency.