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Thailand Criticized for Cracking Down on News Organizations - 2002-03-05

Journalists and media watchdog groups say Thailand may be in danger of losing its good reputation as a bastion of press freedom following a government crackdown on several news organizations.

In recent weeks, the government of Thailand has taken action against several foreign and domestic news organizations.

Two reporters working in Bangkok for the Far Eastern Economic Review were threatened with expulsion after their magazine published an article indicating tension between the prime minister and the king. A recent edition of the Economist magazine was barred because of an article critical of Thailand's economic policies. And the government has moved against radio and television programs, run by Thailand's Nation media group, which have been critical of the government. Thailand has a law against anyone insulting or defaming King Bhumipol Adulyadej or the royal family. But the managing editor of The Nation newspaper, Kavi Chongkaittavorn, says the current crackdown is not about the royal family. Mr. Chongkaittavorn, currently studying on a fellowship at Harvard University, says Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra seems to be trying to intimidate the Thai press. "Before Thaksin came to power, Thailand's press freedom was one of the world's most outstanding cases," he said. "Now, within 15 months, the government has tried to annihilate the Thai press, not to mention the foreign press, in various ways by buying into independent TV, trying to co-opt journalists, trying to pool all the public relations funds administered by various government and state agencies, blacklist foreign journalists - all sorts of measures that try to cripple the wings of the journalists."

The Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Kavita Menon, says Thai journalists have been complaining for more than a year about Prime Minister Thaksin's intolerance of criticism. She says the prime minister, who owns a telecommunications conglomerate, has used indirect pressure to control editorial content in the Thai media. Ms. Menon says action against the press - such as the expulsion of foreign journalists - is not unprecedented in Thailand. "But it happened before under military dictatorship," she said. "It has not happened since Thailand has become a democracy, and under the new constitution from 1997 -it was a very reform-minded constitution. Press freedom is guaranteed, and journalists have been very vigilant in defending their freedoms."

Mr. Chongkaittavorn, who is outgoing president of the Thai Journalists' Association, says since Prime Minister Thaksin's election 15 months ago, he has tried without much success to implement social and economic reforms. He says Thai journalists, academics and opposition politicians have become increasingly critical of the government. "And now the prime minister himself wanted to restrict these freedom of expression because he could not tolerate any criticism," said Kavi Chongkaittavorn. "So, a leader who was elected by absolute majority is becoming a dictator in the making."

Mr. Chongkaittavorn says he worries that Thailand cannot emerge from the current situation with its reputation intact as a bastion of press freedom. "Thailand blacklists two foreign correspondents, but now the whole world blacklists Thailand," he said. "That is very sad, because Thailand has built up this reputation for many, many years. Press freedom in Thailand will never be the same again unless the government comes out and expresses support for free press."

Thai officials say the Far Eastern Economic Review reporters were ordered expelled because they threatened national security. Kavita Menon, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says governments often give that explanation for a crackdown on the media. "This is the logic that's always used - that critical reports threaten national security, that they undermine stability," said Kavita Menon. "And we always just try to point out that on the contrary, allowing various opinions to circulate freely and responding to criticism, not by censoring magazines but by writing a letter to the editor, writing some kind of response would be a much more effective way of handling any critical reports."

Ms. Menon says she hopes Thailand's press is strong enough to withstand the challenges confronting it. She says Thailand's commitment to democracy is being tested.