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Rights Activists Say Thai Media Liberties Slipping as State of Emergency Extended

  • Daniel Schearf

Thailand's extension of emergency rule allows the government, among other measures, to continue shutting down any media outlets it considers a threat to national security. The authorities say they are trying to curb anti-government media that use divisive hate speech and encourage violence. But media rights advocates say the campaign appears politically motivated and continues a trend of attacks on freedom of expression.

Under the state of emergency, Thai authorities are closing hundreds of Web sites as well as newspapers and broadcasters opposed to the government.

Thai authorities say they spread hate speech and lies and instigated violence during a two-month demonstration by thousands of protesters in Bangkok.

Ninety people, including two journalists, were killed and hundreds injured when soldiers clashed with protesters in April and May.

Vincent Brossel, Asia Director of Reporters Without Borders, says journalists appeared to be targeted during the Bangkok protest. According to the organization's press freedom index, Thailand was ranked 130th out of 175 countries in 2009.

Brossel says if the environment for media does not improve quickly Thailand's ranking will drop further.

"Thailand has been in the past one of the most open countries for media in the region," Brossel said. "And, it's turning very critical of the press freedom and it's no more an example for the rest of the sub-region in terms of media freedom."

This week, the government extended the state of emergency for Bangkok and 18 provinces. Officials say the tight restrictions are needed to prevent further unrest and help unify the country.

It says it will stop censorship once order has been restored and media reforms in place to prevent abuses.

However, critics warn that without freedom of expression, reconciliation is doomed to failure. An International Crisis Group report says that by suppressing peaceful outlets for the opposition to express opinions, the Thai government may actually encourage people to use violence.

Kiatichai Pongpanich is senior editor at the Khao Sod daily, one of Thailand's largest newspapers. He recently told the Bangkok Foreign Correspondents Club that reform should come from the news media rather than the government.

"There might be some ground to close the media, to block them, whatever," said Kiatichai. "But, there should be in practice, have some correct measures to do that. Not just to say that for maintaining the state security and then we close them."

Censorship has been a problem in Thailand off and on for decades, even without emergency laws.

Under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, earlier this decade, many news outlets were intimidated and threatened into submission. Other past governments also imposed media controls.

In addition, Thailand's strict lese majeste laws, aimed at protecting the revered monarchy, make it illegal to say or publish anything deemed to defame the monarchy. It carries terms of up to 15 years in prison for each violation.

But anyone can file charges of lese majeste, and police are obliged to investigate. Critics say that results in many politically motivated accusations.

Ubonrat Siriyuvasak is a media reform activist and former professor of Communications at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"We see an increasing number of cases of lese majeste, whether open or secretly, arresting these citizens," Ubonrat said. "And, also, mainstream press have not been able to or shy away from reporting these cases. This is also one concern that Thais don't get all these reports."

Details of lese majeste charges are rarely made public because simply repeating an alleged insult could itself be considered a violation of the law.

This month a leader of Thailand's yellow-shirt movement, which says it is protecting the monarchy, was charged with lese majeste for quoting an opponent who allegedly defamed the monarchy. The yellow-shirt leader denies the charges.

The opponent, an anti-government protest leader, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

A Thai blogger this month received a royal pardon after serving one year in jail for posting photos deemed offensive on the Internet. He had been sentenced to 10 years.