In Thailand, moves by military junta threaten press freedom

New York, September 21, 2006—As Thailand’s new ruling military junta imposed restrictions on the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the transitional authority to uphold the press freedom guarantees enshrined in the recently dissolved 1997 constitution.

The ruling Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) called a meeting today with senior media representatives, ordering all radio stations to cancel phone-in news programs and telling television stations to stop displaying on the bottom of their screens text messages sent by viewers from their mobile phones. The junta ordered Web-based chat rooms to screen and censor any comments viewed as provocative.

It also empowered the Information and Communications Technology Ministry to censor any news that questioned or undermined the junta’s authority, according to local media reports. As of Thursday evening there were no reported cases of censorship of the print or Internet-based news media.

“Thailand’s new military government has stated it intends to return power to the people as soon as possible, and the first meaningful step in that direction is to stop interfering with the media,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratklin to allow Thailand to resume its widely recognized position as a regional standard-bearer for press freedom.”

Troops and tanks have maintained positions in front of Thailand’s six television stations since the September 19 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and installed Sonthi as interim leader. All of Thailand’s radio and television broadcast frequencies are government-owned and national programming was universally interrupted as the coup took place.

Channel 9, which is run by the prime minister’s office, aired part of a statement by Thaksin, who from New York attempted to declare a state of emergency and order Sonthi’s removal. The statement was cut off midway. The station’s managing director, Mingkwan Sangsuwan, was later taken into army custody for questioning and two days later his whereabouts could not be confirmed.

The military also blacked out CNN and BBC news broadcasts during and directly after the coup when the reports focused specifically on Thaksin, but later allowed news programming to resume. Thailand’s media had come under intense government harassment during Thaksin’s five years in power.