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CAPSULE REPORT: A year after coup, press freedom remains compromised and vulnerable

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 17 September 2007 SEAPA report:

A year after Thai coup, press freedom remains compromised and vulnerable

One year after the coup in Thailand, a new Constitution is in place, elections are on the horizon and Thais are looking forward to normalising the overall political climate in the Kingdom. The newly approved Constitution returns much of the guarantees for free expression and press freedom enshrined in the previous charter of 1997. Related to this, government moves to strengthen public broadcasting, to impose stricter rules against political interference and ownership in private media, and to revoke an antiquated Printing Act seek to rectify vulnerabilities in the press that were exploited by the deposed government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The media and free expression environment, however, remains compromised, with martial law, lèse-majesté rules, and new and proposed laws governing the Internet and national security concerns keeping the media footing problematic in the future.

For starters, martial law remains hanging over 35 provinces, or around half of the kingdom. This fact alone has imposed limitations on political activities, freedom of assembly, and, media advocates say, on the vibrancy of alternative media such as community radio stations and online forums.

In Bangkok, where Thailand's mainstream media are headquartered, there are indeed active and aggressive discussions being vented and circulated in the country's biggest newspapers and popular radio programmes. But in the capital, self-censorship has been a concern for every newsroom since the coup of 19 September 2006, and even then there is acknowledgement by Bangkok editors that the reality for them is not the reality for the smaller members of their community, especially in the provinces.

Many of the community radio stations initially blocked after the coup have since come back on air, but some with decidedly more conservative editorial tones. Other alternative media, meanwhile, are more sensitive to martial law and the prevailing political and legal realities.

Internet-based media and forums, in particular, are harassed and troubled. The interim National Legislative Assembly has passed a notorious Computer-Related Offences Commission Act that has given the government impetus to its already aggressive policing of online content. Two arrests have so far been effected under the controversial new law - in both instances, involving individuals said to be posting comments on online forums.With this as backdrop, SEAPA reiterates that it is troubled by the unclear criteria on what constitute "offences" under the Act, the disproportionate punishments to violators and the implications of some of the provisions on free expression.

The law even seeks to apply to acts abroad that are deemed to "damage the country, both directly and indirectly" ( ).

Many political sites - particularly those sympathetic to former prime minister Thaksin - remain inaccessible, and Thailand's most popular online forums, such as , continue to labour (and be compromised) over "requests" from government (made more compelling by the Computer Computer-Related Offences Commission Act) to manually monitor each and every comment posted by its thousands of users.

Even the recent return of the popular video-sharing website YouTube - totally banned in March - only comes after a reported agreement between the Thai government and YouTube to cooperate in censoring content from being accessible in Thailand.

Beyond the Computer-Related Offences Commission Act and the anxiety of the online and alternative media community, free expression advocates and human rights monitors are anxious about government's consideration of a national security bill.

Among other things, the bill proposes to impose restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly and information (Articles 25(2), 25(3) and 25(6)), and to "suppress" groups, individuals and organisations perceived as threatening to national security (Article 26(2))."Threats" are very broadly and vaguely defined, notes Amnesty International, "including not only acts of violence but also 'trans-border crime,' 'propaganda' and 'incitement'." ( )

On a positive note, long-running campaigns to reform the media sector, initiated years before the coup, continued through the past year and actually resulted in some steps forward. A draft Thai Public Service Broadcasting Agency Act seeks to create in Thailand the first public broadcasting platform in Southeast Asia. ARTICLE 19 says the draft act ensures independence of the broadcaster, but still needs improvement as regards independence, representativeness and accountability of its board of directors ( ).

Media advocates such as the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), however, say more safeguards are needed to ensure true editorial independence, especially as the public broadcasting law still keeps the broadcaster concerned heavily dependent on state funds.

This only underscores that the same old problems of free speech limitations, media ownership and the resulting vulnerability of media to political and commercial pressures will remain for Thailand. Lèse-majesté laws remain in place to protect a genuinely revered monarch, but also to be exploited and invoked by warring political interests.

Indeed, the current campaign to "normalise" Thailand's political climate merely means returning to the status quo ante - with the new and proposed laws discussed (Computer-Related Offences Commission Act, national security bill) actually creating new and serious problems not present before.

For the full text of the report, see:

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