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Minister attempts to ban broadcasts of private television station following coverage of protests

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Thailand's interior minister is under fire for moving to pull a private television channel off of cable networks nationwide. Cable operators, opposition senators, and free expression advocates are calling a directive by Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung - which media reports say threatens cable operators with imprisonment unless they pull the plug on cable channel ASTV - illegal and unconstitutional.

On 13 June 2008, Chalerm Yoobamrung moved to ban ASTV, in an apparent attempt to stifle its live coverage of anti-government protests organized in Bangkok by the People's Alliance for Democracy.

Chalerm Yoobamrung issued his directive at a monthly ministerial meeting which was broadcast live via video conference to 76 governors nationwide.

The English-language daily "The Nation" quoted the interior minister as telling the governors: "Write this down. The broadcasting of ASTV through cable TV is a crime, according to the Criminal Law Article 85 and the [cable network] owners could be jailed for at least six months." Chalerm Yoobamrung added: "You, as governors, have to ask cable TV operators to stop such broadcasting. If they fail to do so, you should file a lawsuit against them. Don't worry. I have studied the legal issues carefully before announcing this policy. Call the ministry if you have any questions."

Cable TV operators were quick to question the legality of the directive.

Senator and lawyer Warin Thiamcharas said Chalerm Yoobamrung's order violates Article 45 of the Thai Constitution, as it contravenes guarantees for free expression and access to information.

On 15 June, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej acknowledged that Thailand's Central Administrative Court provides protection to ASTV's broadcasts, even in its critical coverage of his government.

Chalerm Yoobamrung has since tried to qualify his directive, saying he is not out to completely ban ASTV, but rather seeks just to stifle the broadcast of supposedly inflammatory statements made by protesters. All the same, opposition Democrats in Bangkok say the interior minister is ultimately still trying to tamper with a free press.

SEAPA is a coalition of press freedom advocacy groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Established in November 1998, the network aims to unite independent journalists and press-related organisations in the region into a force for the protection and promotion of press freedom and free expression in Southeast Asia. SEAPA is composed of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Jakarta-based Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Thai Journalists Association.

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