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BANGKOK, Apr 9 2010 (IPS) - For press freedom advocates, it was bad enough, though not totally surprising, to hear that the government had shut down the opposition media amid the state of emergency in the Thai capital. But alarming to them is the gagging even of independent news sites.
“There is a mistaken notion that we are supporters of the red shirts,” Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the independent Thai news website Prachatai.com said in an interview with IPS, referring to the red-clad protesters that have been demonstrating here for the fourth week to get the government to call for a new election.
“I have to say again that we are an independent media organisation that does not take sides with anyone in particular,” she explained.
Prachatai.com – which means ‘free people’ – is one of the 36 websites singled out for blocking by the government in a directive approved Thursday. Most of the other sites were media outlets by opposition groups themselves.
But “we will continue to follow events and I hope (the government) will see us in a proper light, that we’re just doing our duty in informing the public about what’s happening,” added Chiranuch, who is out on bail on a lese majeste charge due to comments that were not removed from Prachatai’s discussion board in 2009.
Thus far, Prachatai’s English-language site, Prachatai.org, is still on.
Also blocked were an FM community radio and online sites, including the red shirts’ YouTube channels and pages on Facebook and Hi5.
Thai media activist Supinya Klangnarong says that banning these websites is “simply wrong”.
“This government worries too much,” Supinya, the head of the Thai Netizens Network, said, referring to the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. “It has become so fearful that they tend to exaggerate and see the Internet as the enemy when it is not. The Internet is a space for different views to be discussed.”
The government hopes that shutting down some communication networks of the red shirts will weaken the protests, which on Friday continued despite the emergency decree. That decree was instituted on Wednesday night, after a group of protesters broke into Parliament grounds.
Tens of thousands of protesters remain at the Rajprasong intersection, which they have occupied since Saturday.
Sathit Wongnongtoey, Abhisit’s office minister in charge of shutting down the media sites, said the opposition media content “contained distorted facts and was aimed at inciting unrest”, according to news reports Thursday.
Thai anthropologist Yukti Mukdawijitra says the crackdown on opposition media sites “is just something they had to do” but is unlikely to be permanent. He, however, feels that the government has let its Achilles’ heel show by these acts of censorship.
“I think it shows that the government can’t calm down the protesters and so they try to give a semblance of control by doing something else, that is, ban the opposition’s media sites, which is something they have control over,” said Yukti, deputy dean and graduate programme director of Thammasat University’s sociology and anthropology department.
Supinya agreed: “This government is very insecure and believe that shutting down opposition sites will help them control the situation.”
But she says that shutting down these sites while leaving government-backed media institutions untouched – which has already drawn rallies from the red shirts — will upset the public. “Television is almost one-sided and biased for the government side,” she says.
The Thai Journalists’ Association questioned the “double standard” being employed by the government. “…The government continued to use state-owned radio and TV stations to present one-sided information,” it said in a statement. “The government also allowed other radio stations and another satellite TV to present similar content of state media, which could lead to further rifts in society.”
Overall, Chiranuch says she is worried that with the blocking of Prachatai, people would not be able to access diverse and more independent information and this could lead to further confusion and fear-mongering.
“It can be a frightening thing for both the protesters and the general public not to have access to reliable information,” she said.
Yukti finds it sad that Prachatai’s independent coverage has been twisted by other groups as sympathy with the red shirts. “If you report about the red shirts, you would most likely be identified with them. I don’t think the public cares about these (episodes of) web censorship,” said Yukti.
People react negatively to media bans when their personal space is attacked and majority of Thais see the Internet more as “personal space” for networking instead of a political venue, Supinya notes.
“A temporary shutdown of sites is fine but not if it’s permanent, which will definitely invite negative reactions from the public,” she said.
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