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MEDIA-THAILAND: Coup Masters Ban Community Radio

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 6 2006 (IPS) - While Thailand’s military-appointed prime minister seeks international approval and Bangkok’s affluent citizens continue to praise last month’s coup, a different reality is unfolding in the country’s north and north-east provinces. One word sums it up: censorship.

Media silenced by the junta are community and local radio stations in the poorer reaches of the country. The impact of this ban has even led some locals who run grassroots media in the provinces of Ubon Ratchathani and Amnat Charoen, close to the Thai-Laos border, to avoid talking about it openly, fearing the consequences.

‘’The community radio people say they do not want to talk about the ban at the moment,” a non-governmental organisation (NGO) worker who uses community radio in Thailand’s north-east for her programmes told IPS. ‘’It is a very sensitive issue. They feel vulnerable.”

Programmes in local dialects that reached out to marginalised communities to raise awareness about migrant rights, labour rights, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS prevention have gone off air. ‘’All community radios have gone silent in the north,” Pranom Somwong, an activist with an NGO championing the rights of migrant labour in the northern city of Chiang Mai, said in an interview.

In the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, for instance, close to 300 community radio stations were ordered to go off the air a day after the military took over on Sep. 19 night, deposing the government of twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In the Nan province, a further 30 community radio stations were shut.

The junta justified such censorship in letters sent to the grassroots broadcasters. The letters declared that the prevailing 1997 constitution had been revoked by the coup and so had the article contained in it on broadcasting rights, ‘Section 40′. This article protects ‘’transmission frequencies for radio or television broadcasting” as a ‘’national communication resource for public interest.”

The crackdown on community radio stations was part of a larger offensive mounted by the junta to suppress any form of political activity after the coup, since these northern and north-eastern belts of poverty had supported the ousted premier for his pro-poor policies. Political rallies, political discussions involving more than five people and distributing leaflets with political messages are on the military’s banned list.

‘’All northern community radio stations have been temporarily closed down after some were found to have provoked disunity among people and created misunderstanding about Tuesday’s military coup,” the ‘Bangkok Post’ reported during the week of the putsch. A subsequent edition of the English daily added that ‘’community radios are now seen as a significant threat to the (junta’s) authority as they could be used by supporters of the ousted prime minister to incite public resentment against the (junta).”

In addition, the junta, strengthened by the powers of martial law it has imposed since the coup, has even turned to psychological operations-like measures to monitor and control the political sentiments in the rural areas under suspicion. ‘’They (the military) are focusing on certain districts and certain villages based on intelligence,” Gen. Winai Phattiyakul, a leading member of the junta, which now calls itself the Council for National Security (CNS), said at a press conference in response to a question by IPS. ‘’It is not widespread. It is a decision left to the regional commanders.”

And while there is little sign of the junta lifting this siege on the radio for the poor, the contradiction this reality conveys – when compared with the declared intentions of the military generals to capture power – is leading to protest from some quarters. Most glaring is that such brazen censorship goes against the claims of the junta that the September coup was to restore democracy and media freedom to this South-east Asian nation.

‘’The rural people should have a right to broadcast. What the military is doing is the same as what Thaksin did to the media before,” Supinya Klangnarong, a media freedom campaigner who won a landmark freedom-of-expression legal battle during the Thaksin years, told IPS. ‘’Thaksin tried to manipulate community radio as a propaganda tool. But now it has been silenced. I disagree with the military’s policy.”

The recent hurdles that have come in the way of community and local radio stations are the latest in a struggle by a media that made an entry shortly after Thaksin was first elected to power in January 2001. Not only have these stations not received much support by the mainstream media, but as they tried to make headway in the country’s broadcasting world, they were up against a powerful Thaksin government determined to control the media and contain its critics.

‘’Despite these problems, the community radio stations have grown to play a critical role in expanding the space for free expression on the airwaves to local areas,” adds Supinya, secretary-general of Campaign for Popular Media Reform, a media rights NGO. ‘’Before, radio stations were controlled and dominated by the centre, in Bangkok. Now the power has been decentralised.”

Currently, there are close to 3,000 local radio stations that offer commercial and political content and over 200 community radio stations that have non-commercial content. According to the Public Relations Department (PRD), about 2,500 of these stations are registered across the country.

But the September coup has also brought into relief the influence the military has always had on the mainstream electronic media as part of its national security policy. Of the 524 national radio stations, 220 stations are controlled by the army, 140 come under the PRD and the rest are shared between the police, universities and a former government department that has been transformed into a public company.

The continued ‘’media blackout” makes the junta a perfect candidate for criticism by the United Nations, states the Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based rights watchdog. ‘’We call for the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression to issue an urgent communication to the authorities in Thailand, raising concerns about their apparent efforts to restrict freedom of speech there.”

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