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Thai Authorities Seize Magazine - 2002-01-08

Authorities in Thailand have seized the latest edition of a weekly newsmagazine because of an article about tensions between the King of Thailand and the government's prime minister. It is the first such seizure in more than a decade.

The chief of Thai police in charge of foreign press affairs ordered the seizure of all newsstand copies of this week's edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine.

The police chief told reporters the edition was banned because it violated a 60 year-old law prohibiting the publishing of statements that might lead to social and national disorder.

He did not elaborate, but officials in the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the government was upset over an article in the weekly's intelligence section. They said lawyers were deciding whether there were grounds to sue.

In the section, the Hong Kong-based newsmagazine refers to a nationwide speech by King Bhumibol Adulyadej on his birthday one-month ago. The king criticized Thai leaders for arrogance and hypocrisy. He also urged them to be more tolerant of criticism.

Although the King did not mention any leader by name, he did note in the same speech that the prime minister appeared unhappy with the remarks.

A spokesperson for the Dow Jones Company, which publishes the magazine, said it had not received official notification of any action against the publication. The company says it stands by the story.

The Asia Consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Lin Newman, says the magazine was merely commenting on a speech that had been widely reported by the Thai media. "I think it is an indication of the fact that this is a government that does not like the rough and tumble of public criticism," he said. "And there have been a number of incidents, both public and private, that have taken place since Mr. Thaksin came to office that have shown that the government has tried to put the lid on the kind of political debate that we have grown used to here in Thailand."

Thailand's monarch has no formal political power, but he is widely revered and is a symbol of unity and spiritual continuity to the country's 62 million citizens.

Prime Minister Shinawatra, who heads a telecommunications conglomerate, is one of the nation's wealthiest businessmen. He was elected by a landslide last year on a populist platform of social and economic reform.

The prime minister continues to receive approval ratings of nearly 50 percent. Mr. Newman says it would be unfortunate if the government over-reacts. "I am hoping it is not a trend because it really would mean that Thailand is going in the reverse direction in terms of free expression," he said. "Thailand has become, to its credit, one of the most open societies in Asia and I think that that has been one of the things that has been very good for Thailand."

Despite the freedoms, Thai journalists have protested several times over what they say are attempts by the government to quash critical reporting. They say these attempts have usually come in the form of financial pressure, such as threats to withdraw advertising or dismiss overly aggressive journalists.

Media analysts say they believe the incident will be allowed to pass. The government says the seizure order will not affect future editions of the magazine.