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Press is first casualty of Thai junta, but censoring free speech may deepen national divide

by Todd Pitman

AP, AFP-JIJI

A former political science professor was discussing the Thai Army’s declaration of martial law on live TV when the program was suddenly interrupted to transmit order No. 9 from the Peace and Order Maintaining Command.

The military edict banned media from interviewing academics and ex-government officials whose opinions could incite conflict. Shortly afterward, the host turned to her guest.

“We have to wrap up the show for now,” she said, before smiling and asking, “Do you have anything to add?” Sukhum Nualsakul, a former rector of Ramkhamhaeng University, waved to the camera and responded simply, “See you when the situation is better.”

That scene Tuesday in the studios of the independent Thairath TV station underscored the precarious state of press freedom in Thailand in the wake of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s unexpected declaration of martial law this week and his decision Thursday to take control of the government.

Prayuth said the moves were necessary to restore stability after nearly seven months of political deadlock and deadly violence. At least 28 people have been killed since November, when a protest movement began pushing to overthrow the government.

Journalists and rights groups have criticized the army for primarily targeting the press rather than protesters. Of the 12 edicts issued Tuesday by the military’s newly formed peace and order entity, set up to oversee the army intervention, at least five concern media censorship.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a leading press freedom advocate from the online news outlet Prachatai, said the army believes “that by shutting people up, they can control the situation.”

“That can’t work in a democracy,” she said. “Thailand is deeply divided. Our problems will never be solved if people are not allowed to express their ideas and speak.”

Martial law was announced in the dead of night, at 3 a.m. Tuesday. Troops fanned out across the capital and entered TV stations, forcing them to broadcast the army’s message. Soldiers remained in master control rooms afterward to censor comments deemed “negative,” and many remain.

So far, at least 14 partisan TV networks — both pro- and anti-government stations — have shut down and nearly 3,000 unlicensed community radio stations across Thailand have been ordered to close. Newspapers have been warned not to publish articles that could incite unrest. The army says violators will be prosecuted, although so far, none have been.

The army has extended its censorship bid into social media, setting up a special committee to monitor services and summoning Internet service providers to discuss the issue. One, True Corp., says the army has blocked access to six websites with “inappropriate” content.

The new ruling junta on Friday further warned it would block any social media platforms in the country found to carry content that incites violence or criticizes military leaders.

In one of a series of bulletins on national television laying out new restrictions after declaring a military coup, the junta urged “cooperation from social media operators and all involved to stop such messages that incite violence, break the law or criticize the coup council.”

“If we find any to be in violation, we will suspend the service immediately and will summon those responsible for prosecution,” it added.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are hugely popular in Thailand. The step was taken to ensure the release of “accurate news to the people,” an army spokesman said in a televised announcement.

Regional military commanders have ordered several academics not to comment on the political situation, according to Human Rights Watch. And at least one major bookstore in Bangkok, Kinokuniya, has pulled political titles from its shelves that could be deemed controversial.

An employee at the store, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the company took the action voluntarily. But Benjamin Zawacki, an independent analyst who lives in Bangkok, said on Twitter that the store informed him six books he had ordered were “prohibited for sale due to martial law.”

The books included titles such as “Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand,” a collection of essays that examine the conflict that has roiled the country since the army overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup, over allegations that he abused his power and disrespected the king.

Thaksin’s ouster left Thailand sharply divided, between a poorer rural majority in the north and northeast that benefited from his populist policies and a traditional elite of staunch royalists and powerful businessmen in Bangkok and their supporters in the south.

Although some print media in the capital have toned down their reporting, commentaries on social media that are critical of the army intervention continue unabated.

One example: a photo circulating on Twitter of two women holding up paper signs that read, “No Martial Law — A Coup in Disguise,” and “Stop Abusing People Power!” as they stand next to helmeted soldiers decked in camouflage and black armored vests.

Leading Thai media organizations say that although some politically affiliated TV channels have broadcast provocative content that could fuel hatred, the military orders contravene the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution, which was suspended by the military on Thursday.

Shawn Crispin, the Bangkok-based representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, agreed.

“Partisan media on both sides have at times breached ethical lines in broadcasting hate speech . . . but we think the military wrongly believes that free speech is stoking the conflict,” he said. “If Thailand is going to come out of this crisis, the country needs to have an open and free debate.”