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Leading Thai News Organization Halts Political Coverage - 2002-03-06

A leading news organization in Thailand is halting political news coverage on its 24-hour news television station because of government interference. The announcement follows several recent incidents that raise fears about press freedom in the country.

Thailand's Nation Multimedia Group announced the decision in its newspaper Wednesday. The group says it is concerned with what it called uncertainties suggesting the government is not willing to guarantee freedom of expression.

It adds that the political situation has affected political reporting and commentary. The company says it will halt political coverage until it is free from all interference.

The group's senior editors Tuesday said they had been banned from supplying politically oriented news programs to a local radio station. No official explanation was given. There have been other government actions lately that appear intended to limit critical news coverage.

The developments have sparked intense public debate over freedom of the press in Thailand. Media watchdog groups and human rights organizations say the recent incidents tarnish the country's reputation and raise fears of a return to authoritarianism.

A senior Nation editor, Adisak Limprungpattanakit, says as long as the media is not free, such incidents will happen again. "The result is that broadcasters will not have the confidence to present political news," says Mr. Adisak.

The Dean of Communications at Bangkok's Chulalangkorn University, Joompol Rodcumdee, says the government's actions threaten the freedoms that have been gained since the end of the military dictatorship a decade ago. It's more freedom at this moment, but when we have something, a situation like this, we feel it's a regression to the past," Mr. Joompol said. The Nation's newspaper Wednesday published a cartoon depicting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with a Hitler-like mustache. The rival Bangkok Post ran a cartoon showing a reporter reeling from a beating by government officials. A Post editorial calls for an end to a government monopoly over Thailand's broadcasting frequencies.

The Nation's troubles appear tied to a broadcast criticizing the government for banning a recent issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine and ordering its two correspondents expelled.

In addition, the Economist news magazine kept this week's edition off Thai news stands after editors learned that a survey of the Thai economy might be considered offensive.