Thailand Orders News Outlet Shut Down Amid Protests

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Bangkok
2020-10-20
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201020-TH-protest-media-800.jpg Pro-democracy demonstrators flash the Hunger Games movie-inspired three-finger salute outside the Siam Paragon shopping center in Bangkok, Oct. 20, 2020.
AFP

Updated at 2:23 a.m. ET on 2020-10-21

A Thai court on Tuesday ordered the website and social media platforms of Voice TV shut down, a day after the government said it would investigate media agencies involved in spreading false information, amid anti-government protests in defiance of an emergency decree.

An official at the Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society (DES), one of two Thai agencies empowered to remove or block content, said the court was also considering action against three other media outlets.

“I understand the court order exercised the power of the Computer Crime Act against disseminating false information, stirring up unrest and publishing on the internet,” Putchapong Nodthaisong, a deputy permanent-secretary at DES, told reporters.

“When we have court orders we inform internet providers or foreign platform operators to take down content,” Putchapong said, adding that the targeted outlet had not yet been shuttered.

A day earlier, the national police chief said he had ordered relevant agencies to take down or block content disseminated by four media outlets and a Facebook page deemed as spreading misinformation or defaming the royals. The news outlets were Voice TV, Prachatai, the Standard and the Reporters. The Facebook belongs to a student group called Free Youth.

The month-long emergency announced in Bangkok on Oct. 15 banned gatherings of more than four people and prohibited “publication of news, other media and electronic information that contains messages that could create fear or intentionally distort information.”

It was read out on state television after tens of thousands of people marched in Bangkok the day before, and a motorcade carrying Thailand’s queen and her stepson was briefly blocked by anti-government protesters.

Pro-democracy protesters have been holding rallies since July 18 and have called for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to resign, for the constitution to be rewritten and for the royal institution to be reformed.

On Tuesday, after a cabinet meeting, Prayuth told reporters he had instructed police and involved agencies to carry out enforcement actions while respecting “press freedom and rights.”

“Nevertheless, fake news, distorted information, royal defamation or the violation of others deserve police action, case by case,” he said.

Human Rights Watch slammed the move as media censorship.

“Banning Voice TV is the Thai government’s latest attempt to stop the reporting about democracy protests and ensuing abuses against protesters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for the New York-based watchdog group.

“The crackdown is part of a bigger effort to bully and control the media into becoming a government mouthpiece.”

Link to the Shinawatras

Voice TV is partly owned by the family of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck. It broadcasts via satellite, a website, and YouTube and Facebook.

According to Human Rights Watch, Thai authorities have also pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV.

A Voice TV executive said Tuesday that the media company continued to broadcast.

“In reference to the reports that the DES deputy permanent-secretary has ordered the shuttering of all online platforms of Voice TV, we’ve not received any document yet,” said Makin Petplai, CEO of the 11-year-old media outlet.

“Voice TV affirms our work is conducted professionally without giving misinformation or being subversive to national security.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand also criticized the government moves against the media.

“A free media is an essential element in any democratic society, and bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threat of bans, suspensions, censorship or prosecution hanging over them,” the correspondents club said in a statement.

Special session of parliament

Meanwhile, Anucha Nakasai, a minister attached to the prime minister’s office, said Tuesday that the cabinet had approved a special parliament session to discuss protesters’ demands.

The earliest a session could occur would be Oct. 26 or 27, and no official action would be taken at the sitting, he said.

“All sides agreed to have an extraordinary session to address all issues which currently exist. The prime minister will inform the house speaker about this session,” Anucha said.

On Tuesday, hundreds gathered in at least three spots in Bangkok in defiance of the emergency decree for a sixth straight day.

Protesters also took to the streets in the southern city of Trang, Kanchanaburi, in western Thailand, and in the northern province of Lamphun.

In addition to banning gatherings and instituting media curbs, the emergency decree also empowers soldiers and police to arrest suspects without a warrant, to hold them longer than the criminal code allows, and to detain them in places other than a police station or court cell.

Police are currently holding more than 75 protesters arrested since the ban was declared at a police barracks on the outskirts of Bangkok.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the government had ordered four news outlets shut down.

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