Thailand threatens to censor media as protests swell

A govt order ordered the censorship of Prachatai and other online media outlets in a bid to quell growing protests

BANGKOK • Thai authorities threatened to censor media outlets in a bid to quell growing protests against the monarchy, which have continued daily since the government imposed emergency rule last week.

A government order last Friday ordered the censorship of Prachatai and other online media outlets for distributing content that “could cause panic” and “could threaten national security”. At a briefing yesterday, police said the order hasn’t been enforced yet and that authorities would likely ask media outlets to remove content on a case-by-case basis rather than block them altogether.

“We’ve received information from our intelligence units that some content with distorted information has been used and disseminated to cause confusion and instigate unrest in society,” Kritsana Pattanacharoen, a spokesman for the national police, said at a briefing. The task force “would enforce the law to comply with freedom of the press principles”, he said.

Several news outlets released statements protesting the government’s move. Prachatai, which is continuing to post updates on Twitter, said it was “honoured” to report accurate information on human rights and political developments in Thailand, and “we’ll try our best in continuing to do so”. The Thai Enquirer called for the order to be rescinded, saying the government should “read the content of new and digital media to understand the grievances and viewpoints of the people it claims to represent”.

The move comes as lawmakers agreed to submit a letter notifying the Cabinet of its decision to convene a Parliament session to discuss ways to end an escalating protest movement calling for the ouster of Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s government and reform of the monarchy. The Parliament was not due to meet again until after Nov 1, and the session would need King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s endorsement after the Cabinet backed the move.

The government would facilitate Parliament discussions to reduce the conflict, Prayuth said yesterday at Government House.

“The government only asks that the protesters don’t destroy public and private properties and avoid violence,” Prayuth said. “The key task for the government is to protect the monarchy. We only ask for peaceful protests.”

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters rallied in the capital for a fifth day on Sun- day, defying a ban on gatherings and the threat of crackdowns by the police. The protesters have broken long-held taboos about publicly criticising the royal family and questioned laws that stifle discussion of the monarchy.

Thailand’s key equities gauge tumbled to its lowest level in more than six months on concern mounting protests will further erode company earnings and delay an economic recovery. The benchmark stock index slid as much as 2.1% to 1,207.64, its lowest level since April 16, while the baht slid 0.1% to 31.225 to a dollar.

A state of emergency in the capital and the arrests of more than 50 leaders have failed to deter the mostly student-led protesters, with the movement calling for daily demonstrations until their demands are met.

They’re also calling for the resignation of Prayuth’s government and a rewriting of the constitution, which was drafted by a military-appointed panel after the premier, a former army chief, took power in a 2014 coup. The activists say the charter was instrumental in helping Prayuth retain power after the 2019 elections.

“The government may start the process for charter amendment to reduce some pressure but it likely won’t result in everything that the protesters demand,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok.

The protests are gaining momentum amid the worst economic crisis facing the tourism- and trade-reliant nation, which has passed a US$60 billion (RM248.4 billion) stimulus to battle the pan- demic-triggered slump.

The escalating protest movement across Thailand may still hamper the government’s plan to gradually reopen tourism to foreign visitors on the back of its relative success in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

The mass gatherings have raised concernsof a renewed virus outbreak. The country reported five new local virus transmissions on the weekend from the Tak Province that borders Myanmar, which has seen a surge in cases ahead of national elections scheduled for Nov 8.

“At some point in the next two weeks, the daily protests may lose steam because it would get tiring for protesters with the police arresting leaders and dispersing crowds,” Punchada said. “The protesters may change to holding big gatherings weekly or biweekly instead, although the momentum of movement will remain online.” — Bloomberg