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Political crisis inflicts fresh blows on free expression

Both the government and opposition protesters targeted the press in Thailand's recent political drama, report the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency for Bangkok and adjoining provinces on 12 April, after anti-government street protesters, clad in red shirts, blocked major roadways and disrupted an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting.

As part of his declaration, he issued a decree that allows officials to censor news considered a threat to national security, reports CPJ.

The following day, the government ordered the blocking of satellite news broadcaster D Station, which is affiliated with the red-clad protest movement, says CPJ. The station had broadcast live their protests at Government House, the office of the prime minister, and frequent video-link call-ins by exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who in recent weeks urged his followers to rise up against the government through a "people's revolution."

The red shirts are bidding to topple Vejjajiva's four-month-old coalition government. Mostly they are from the impoverished countryside and portray themselves as battling entrenched, unelected elite. Many of them are followers of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and is seen by the poor as their champion. Convicted last year of abuse of power and facing other charges in Thailand, he is living in self-imposed exile.

"Silencing media during political crises does a disservice to the Thai people," said CPJ, calling on the government "to immediately rescind this order of censorship."

Both sides in the escalating political conflict have threatened journalists and news outlets attempting to cover anti-government street protests and the government's response. As of 14 April, the protests had largely ended, but not before major free expression violations were recorded.

On 9 April, an anti-government protester threw a homemade explosive device near the offices of ASTV, a satellite television station that campaigned last year against two consecutive governments affiliated with Thaksin, according to local news reports.

The day before, red-shirted protesters harassed reporters from channels 3 and 7 for reporting that "tens of thousands" of people attended a mass rally in Bangkok; protest leaders had earlier predicted 300,000 would attend. According to SEAPA, three of the journalists from the TV stations were assaulted in separate incidents.

TJA and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) said the incidents created "a climate of fear and anxiety among journalists who are covering the demonstration." TJA had distributed journalists'; safety booklets, water bottles and clothes to reporters covering the event.

A rival, yellow-garbed protest group brought the country to a halt last year by occupying Government House and Bangkok's airports, as well as harassing local reporters and pro-Thaksin radio stations for perceived unfavourable coverage of their movement. Those demonstrations, led by a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who think the poor aren't educated enough to vote, only broke up after court rulings removed Thaksin's allies from power.

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