Following the anti-government protests, the Thai government has begun to crack down on the opposition media. Sinfah Tunsarawuth asks if the heavy-handed tactics will incite further chaos.
Radio and television stations in Thailand have been warned by authorities against airing anti-government criticism that could cause civil unrest. Satit Wonghnongtaey, who is in charge of government’s media policy, told reporters that the government needed to shut down these media, suggesting they had been used to incite unrest in the country.
Among the targets were D station, a satellite television channel run by supporters of former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who form an anti-government bloc known as the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD). Earlier this month, police blocked the broadcasts of the station and later raided the head offices in Bangkok.
The government has alleged that the DAAD had used the satellite D station as its key tool in mobilising people across the country to raise their voices against the Abhisit government, and in calling provincial people to join the rally in Bangkok.
National media has reported that the authorities have raided and seized transmitters of at least three community radio stations in the north and another in the northeast — the two regions of the country where the DAAD’s support is strongest. Authorities have also warned other similar radio stations not to air anti-government criticism. Critics say more crackdown on these radio stations could be expected.
Opposition websites have also become a target. Thai Netizen Network (TNN), an Internet freedom campaign group, said in a statement on Tuesday that the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has blocked 66 ‘political websites that aired views different from those in power’ since 18 April.
In a separate statement on the same day, Campaign on Popular Media Reform, which campaigns on free news media, said the closure of D station constituted the ‘blockage of freedom of information and freedom of opinion of local people and those who have different political views — an act which could intensify the conflict and force those people to go underground’.
The country plunged into political turmoil in late March 2009 after the DAAD protested, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, claiming his government came into power in December 2008 only with the military’s support, and without ever winning an election.
The protests culminated on 11 April, when DAAD protesters, clad in their signature red clothes, broke into a beach resort hotel in Pattaya, where Thailand was hosting a meeting of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The meeting was called off immediately, and foreign leaders were flown out of the country. The following day, after increasing tension, Abhisit declared a state of emergency, as the DAAD was holding its key protests in front of the Government House in Bangkok. The state of emergency remains in force on 23 April in Bangkok and neighbouring towns.
Applying a specific provision under the Public Administration in Emergency Situation Decree of 2005, Abhisit declared that the emergency situation in Bangkok was ‘serious’. This provision allows the authorities to arrest and detain any person suspected of inciting the unrest without charge for a maximum 30 days. The provision also means the authorities can search any building or office, and seize any equipment suspected of being used for such incitement — a measure they are thoroughly embracing.
After the declaration, military forces lined the streets of the capital with automatic rifles and tanks. In response, the DAAD called off its rally on 14 April, claiming that it wanted to avoid any loss of life.
Thai people had expected that such retreat of the DAAD would have returned the country to normality. However, on 17 April, Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of the ASTV Manager media group, was shot in central Bangkok while he was riding in his car with his security guard and driver.
Sondhi is a key leader of an anti-Thaksin group known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which had earlier staged street protests against both the Thaksin government and successive pro-Thaksin governments.
Sondhi was wounded, with shrapnel his head. However he and his security guard are recuperating in hospital. The driver remains in intensive care.Though Sondhi’s role in the PAD could have subjected him to a political assassination attempt, police have said they do not rule out business or personal motivations for the attack.
In May 1992, the government blocked television coverage of the anti-government protests. This censorship led to more people joining the protests, and bloodshed later in the month, forcing the government to step down.
Thai television, the main source of news for people across the country, is all too easily controlled by the government, with all of the main stations either owned or operated by the state. Controlling news media, particularly the television, has always been a key strategy of those in power in time of political turmoil. However, such a policy could also lead to greater opposition to the rulers.