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Media threatened from all sides of unfolding crisis

(SEAPA/IFEX) - 27 April 2010 - The overall environment for media and free expression has become tenuous in Thailand, rendered vulnerable from all sides of a still deteriorating political crisis.

Five weeks of anti-government protests by what have come to be known as the "Red Shirts" have so far resulted in 26 deaths, more than 800 injuries, a severely destabilized economy, and agitation for a more decisive military crackdown on the protesters who have crippled parts of Bangkok. As pressure builds on the government to restore public order, there is also an emerging lobby urging Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to declare martial law and to ramp up a prevailing state of emergency that has already impacted the flow of news, information and opinion in Thailand.

In the first week of the protests, the government used the state of emergency to shut down a pro-opposition TV station (a move denounced as unconstitutional by the Thai Journalists Association) for allegedly inciting hatred and violence, as well as several websites deemed threatening to national security and/or accused of having insulted Thailand's monarchy. Government officials have since expanded their campaign against "disinformation" to cover more websites.

In the latest development, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on 25 April instructed provincial governors to monitor community radio stations for content that "distorts" news and instigates violence. Scores of community radio stations both in Bangkok and the provinces have already been jammed for supposedly incendiary rhetoric and, more recently, for allegedly being tools for mobilizing Red Shirts to disrupt police and military movements in and around Bangkok.

To be sure, it is not just the government that has been concerned about the conduct and impact of "Red" media. Academics, civil society, and ordinary citizens over the past weeks have debated where fair commentary ends and irresponsible use of the media begins. But even as that argument continues in parallel with discussions over whether or not the dilemma is best addressed by a government clampdown, criminal courts, or media self-regulation, the emergency powers that authorities have invoked against the different stations and sites have also manifested the dangers of abuse. In particular, the government's attempt to close down http://www.Prachatai.com, an established independent news website, along with other sites and stations they have branded as anti-government, has been widely questioned, and highlights the slippery slope on which all members and forms of the Thai media now find their sector sliding.

On 27 April, media reports said a CNN broadcast of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra speaking from Montenegro abruptly went off the air in Thailand. Thaksin was deposed by a military coup in 2006 and, after going into exile, is seen by most Thais as the leading backer of the Red Shirt movement. The former prime minister has been a destabilizing and polarizing force in Thai politics over the past four years, to be sure. But attempts to block his exposure and voice have also exposed the Abhisit government to criticisms that it is out to control the flow of information in Thailand. In a country where most TV stations and broadcast frequencies are controlled by the military and the state, that has led to concerns of the state moving to monopolize public discourse over the airwaves.

Free media and human rights advocates decry an attempt to counter heated, uncomfortable discourse and debate with one-sided government releases. While news analysis and commentaries on the bloody 10 April riots were widely reported in both local and international newspapers, for example, coverage of the same by most of Thailand's free television channels, particularly the Army or government-owned stations, has been relatively restrained.

On the ground, the standoffs and skirmishes between government soldiers and the protesters have literally caught media workers in the crossfire. Among the people killed in bloody clashes last 10 April was a Japanese photojournalist from Reuters. The death of the reporter underscores the physical dangers daily confronting the rest of his colleagues in coverage. Save for green armbands that identify some of them as members of the media, many foreign and local journalists in Bangkok are neither well-informed nor trained on safety precautions from their own media organizations, and very few are equipped with safety gear like bullet-proof vests and helmets.

But the violence they have experienced is not only inadvertent. In many instances, foreign and local journalists have been the direct victims of hostility and a general misunderstanding of the role of the independent media. Reporters and several broadcast news crews have been harassed and assaulted by Red Shirts, who accuse them of biased reporting. Ironically, however, many foreign and local journalists have also been harassed for being too "sympathetic" to the protesters.

Rather than encouraging its independence or protecting its diversity, the opposing forces in Thailand are treating media as a weapon to be fought over and used to destroy one another. Forces sympathetic to the Reds are believed to be behind the jamming of the signal of one government-owned station, Channel 11, last 25 April, as it was broadcasting a pre-taped address of Prime Minister Abhisit. Meanwhile, academics and media groups have warned the government that wanton suppression of diverse and dissenting views will only exacerbate the deeper social and political divides in Thailand.

Caught between both sides are journalists and news organizations working to provide independent news and commentary, while struggling to reduce tendencies toward self-censorship.

The growing fear among free expression and human rights communities is that, between the threats to the independence and credibility of the media on the one hand and the government's continuing attempts to restrain news and information about the Red-Shirt demonstrators on the other, the public will be denied the free, independent, and reliable information that they need to make informed decisions during these critical times.

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