Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thailand: Crackdown on Local Stations Undercuts Media Freedom

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Crackdown on Local Stations Undercuts Media Freedom

The Thai government has shut down community radio stations associated with the anti-government “Red Shirt" movement, Human Rights Watch said today. The crackdown followed the government’s announcement that it would dissolve parliament on May 6, 2011, in preparation for national elections. The government should immediately allow the stations to resume operations, Human Rights Watch said.

“The upcoming elections can hardly be credible if the government closes down opposition radio stations and websites,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This government came into office saying it was committed to protecting rights, but it has become the most prolific censor in recent Thai history.”

On April 26, hundreds of armed police officers joined officials from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to raid 13 community radio stations in Bangkok and surrounding provinces associated with the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as “Red Shirts.” The stations were forced off the air for broadcasting material deemed offensive to Thailand’s monarchy. Broadcasting equipment, computers, and documents were seized. At least two station operators were temporarily held in police custody and questioned, then released on bail.

The raids were ordered by the army commander-in-chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who accused the Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, of linking the monarchy with the violent dispersal of the Red Shirt demonstrations in Bangkok in May 2010. Prayuth directed an army officer under his command to file lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) charges against Jatuporn.

A court warrant, seen by Human Rights Watch, provided vague authorization for the raids on the ground that the community radio stations have been operating illegally. But among hundreds of unlicensed community radio stations across Thailand, only those closely linked with the Red Shirts have been targeted, Human Rights Watch said.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva promulgated a state of emergency in Bangkok and other provinces on April 7, 2010. Since then, the authorities had regularly threatened to bring charges against operators of community radio stations that broadcast the Red Shirt protests, saying the broadcasts were illegal. Between April and August 2010, armed soldiers and police were deployed to shut down more than 47 Red Shirt community radio stations in 13 provinces.

Most of them reopened after the state of emergency was lifted in December 2010, but community radio stations linked to the Red Shirts remain under close surveillance of the military-controlled Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).

“Freedom for all Thais has suffered badly because the government and military have cast aside the rule of law to clamp down on critical speech,” Adams said.

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