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Thai coup-makers controlling the message

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 29/05/2014 Robert Kennedy
Thai coup-makers controlling the message: The military has detained and warned reporters to hold fire on tough questions and critical commentary. © Thai coup-makers controlling the message The military has detained and warned reporters to hold fire on tough questions and critical commentary.



Bangkok, Thailand - Media freedom is under the gun in Thailand a week after the military staged a coup d'etat, with reporters detained, websites blocked, and self-censorship growing.

Columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, who appears frequently on air for Al Jazeera, was summoned last week by the military administration calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

The NCPO is led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who carried out the coup last Thursday in an effort to end Thailand's long-running political turmoil that has badly shaken its governance and economy.

Pravit, who works for Thailand's second-largest English daily The Nation, arrived at an army office last Sunday to turn himself in. He was released earlier this Friday, human rights groups confirm.

"I believe the Thai people will keep up the struggle for freedom and democracy ... I hope today's dictator General Prayuth is the last dictator for Thailand," Pravit told reporters outside the main gate before soldiers hustled him away. "They can detain me, but can never detain my conscience."

Calls to Pravit's mobile phone went to voice-mail on Thursday, and he did not respond to an email sent the day previous.

Disappeared

Another reporter, Thanapol Eawsakul, turned himself in last Friday and also disappeared for a week. It was unclear where either journalist was held, but he and Pravit were released earlier today.

"Under martial law, the military has the power to put people in jail without charge for seven days," Brad Adams of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.

It appears mass detentions and warnings to journalists to tow the line are having an intended affect on the media in Thailand, Adams said.

"The Nation and Thai media associations have responded softly to Pravit's arrest, asking the junta to ease censorship, but also asking journalists to self-censor," said Adams. "They have not demanded Pravit's immediate release, nor have they demanded the military to reveal his whereabouts and conditions."

A request for comment sent to The Nation was not answered.

One observer noted the veracity of information has now been compromised after the threats by the army. "When reading reports coming from #Thailand, you need to know that [a] they might be self-censored & [b] not everything is being reported," tweeted Richard Barrow, a popular blogger followed by many on Twitter.

'Cheer him on'

Two local reporters covering military affairs were summoned this week by the army chief for a 45-minute meeting after grilling Prayuth about future elections and a time frame during a press conference.

Wassana Nanuam - who reports for the English-language Bangkok Post and Suparirk Thongchairit for the Thai Rath daily - met Major-General Ponpat Wannapak, who expressed the military government leader's displeasure.

"Such a forceful style of asking is not appropriate," the Bangkok Post quoted Ponpat as saying. "Do not ask in such a manner again, and please understand General Prayuth's good intentions in solving the country's problem. The press should cheer him on."

The army acted swiftly to control the message after the coup last week, immediately ordering radio and television stations to halt programming, and replacing it with broadcasts from the army's TV Channel 5.

Most stations are back up and running - although now with soldiers inside their offices to keep tabs - but CNN remains blocked.

Managing the message

While tackling Thailand's struggling economy and preventing violent protests have been prioritised, reining in the media has also been high on the military government's to-do list.

According to Human Rights Watch: "The military has directed print media not to publicise commentaries critical of the military’s actions. TV and radio programmes have been instructed not to invite on their programmes anyone who might make negative comments about the military or the political situation in the country. Military authorities have told journalists that failure to comply will lead to prosecution."

More than 200 websites have reportedly been blocked as threats to national security - including Human Rights Watch's Thailand site.

Prayuth has moved quickly to secure control of any opposition, rounding up dozens of politicians, scholars, as well as journalists. Many have now been released after promising to keep dissenting views to themselves.

Small and sporadic anti-coup demonstrations have sprouted up in recent days, but the military's stern warnings appear to have proven effective.

At an anti-coup protest at Victory Monument on Monday, soldiers ridiculed foreign reporters over loudspeakers for their coup coverage. "Please come back tomorrow, we'll be waiting for you," a soldier said as the demonstration ended.

Curbs on social media may also be on the horizon. Facebook was shut down briefly on Wednesday, leading to rumours that the military government was responsible. The military denied any involvement, saying it was a technical glitch.

"It is not the policy of the NCPO to close down any social media. However, specific sites which instigate hatred or disseminate false information have been asked for their cooperation in refraining from further incitement," Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told reporters at a press conference on Thursday.

Some observers noted that curbing social media could cause a backlash among Thais who for the most part have accepted the coup and the generals' stated goals of getting Thailand back on track politically and economically.

"Now everything is under the control of the junta," media analyst Wattanee Phoovatis told Al Jazeera's Step Vaessen. "Blocking our communication tools is possible, but if they want to do it, they must do it briefly. People now are so used to these tools that if the army blocks them, repercussions could be greater than what they are aiming to achieve."

The gatekeepers

The National Council for Peace and Order has also ordered the development of an internet "gateway" to control the dissemination of online content.

"We want the national gateway to be a more effective tool than the current mechanism for regulating internet use," Surachai Srisarakam from the Information and Communication Technology Ministry was quoted as saying.

While many journalists and scholars have shied away from responding to the military's moves, others have spoken out against the crackdown. Student activists - who have historically played a leading role in the fight for democracy in Thailand - gathered Thursday at Thammasat University to denounce restrictions.

"The NCPO controls the media, forcing them to present to the public what is beneficial to the NCPO," the Thai Student Centre for Democracy said in a statement. "This ... is an abuse of media freedom."

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand has also issued a statement challenging the new rules of the game, while adding that the show must go on. "While this may impede coverage in the short term - and make it harder for journalists on the ground to produce accurate, balanced reports - it will not diminish interest in this story or make it go away."

The Bangkok Post also took to task the military government's clampdown on freedom of the press in an editorial this week, warning such restrictions could backfire on the generals.

"As it always has, suppression of free speech and communication only drives more critics to seek each other out," it said. "Freedom of speech and the press are highly prized values in our country. A regime that imposes the least censorship will gather the most Facebook likes."

Editor's note: This story was amended to reflect the release of Pravit Rojanaphruk and Thanapol Eawsakul.

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