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Government extends state of emergency

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on 6 June 2010 announced that the Thai government will indefinitely extend the state of emergency over the country.

The state of emergency gives the government more sweeping powers than the Internal Security Act, under which Bangkok was placed when the Red Shirts group began its protest rallies in the capital in March.

With the state of emergency imposed on 7 April, the Thai military was empowered to restore order and allow the government to impose curfews, ban public gatherings of more than five people, and censor and ban media from disseminating news that 'causes panic.'

According to a report by the Associated Press, the measure "also allows security officials to detain suspects without charge for up to 30 days".

Though the Thai government has expressed its concern that incendiary messages in the media might threaten national security, it is also worth noting that the state of emergency has a tremendous impact on the free expression situation of Thailand.

Rights and free speech advocates insist that government should use existing laws and the courts to go after supposedly dangerous speech, rather than using and abusing the emergency decree to arbitrarily close down or block media outlets.

The Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the Thailand Cable TV Association issued a statement shortly after the government announced on 8 April that it had blocked the broadcasts of the People's Channel, an opposition-run satellite TV channel, stressing that shutting down stations in this way violates the Constitution.

The government's dispersal of the Red Shirt rally at Ratchaprasong Intersection and Lumpini Park on 19 May and the subsequent riots marked a peak in free expression-related incidents.

On 20 May, some 600 soldiers closed down two community radio stations in Ubon Ratchathani province and arrested the owner of one of the stations. The soldiers also confiscated broadcasting equipment.

Online media also felt the impact of the emergency measure, with 1,900 websites blocked since 19 May, according to Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of http://www.prachatai.com . This is a big increase from the 35 sites initially shut down when the emergency measure was imposed on 7 April.

Prachatai.com itself, a prominent and independent website, is already on its sixth change of URL after repeated blocking by the government.

Editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk of the Red Shirt group's "Voice of Thaksin" and "Red News" was arrested on 24 May, together with Chulalongkorn University assistant professor Suthachai Yimprasert, after they presented themselves to the police in response to a summons to appear to hear charges. Neither man was charged, though Suthachai was later released. Somyot remains detained at an Army base in Saraburi province.
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