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Media and free expression in Thailand face challenges in election aftermath

As Thailand braces for the hotly-contested national elections, to be held on the 3rd of July, journalists, media groups and civil society in the kingdom are also girding for what could be another round of challenges to Thailand's freedom of expression.

Many surveys show the Democrats trailing opposition Pheu Thai party. An opposition win is widely seen as a victory also of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who had early in the campaign anointed his sister Yingluck as his "clone". A Thaksin return will definitely stir up anew issues of national reconciliation, amnesty and the fate of his frozen assets.

Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, in a rare move, said on military-run TV networks on 14 June that voters should "choose good" people, a statement widely believed to be referring to Democrat Party candidates and their allies and a rebuke on the opposition party.

On the other hand, should the Democrats retain their hold on Parliament (with help from the other smaller parties), observers said Red Shirts might resume their street protests reminiscent of last year's rallies and the subsequent violent dispersal and the rioting that followed.

Post-election scenarios range from a victorious Yingluck striking a deal with the military to the generals launching yet another coup to prevent a Thaksin comeback. On the other hand, a win by the Democrats is seen by many as a trigger to another round of massive street protests by the Red Shirts.

Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the think tank Siam Intelligence Unit (SIU), told SEAPA in an interview that whatever the elections results were, political conflicts are expected to continue. It's a bloodless civil war, he said.

Nelson Rand, a veteran foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, agreed, adding that if the situation went out of control, there might be violence. "There are elements on both sides of Thailand's dangerous political divide that are willing to fight and die for their cause. Since Thailand's political crisis began, it has gone in cycles of relative calm and turmoil. Each round of turmoil in the cycle has been more serious and violent than the previous round. I expect this trend will continue," he told SEAPA.

Bloodless or not, SIU’s Kan said that the continuing political conflict—regardless of who wins in the election—will make freedom of expression suffer from collateral damage.

So far, there has been no crackdown yet on media outlets or journalists with regard to coverage of the election campaign, nor are there violent protests, but if the political situation deteriorates, journalists would do better to hunker down and be ready.

Political media outlets
Meanwhile, the government is already poised for action. The 16 June issue of "Bangkok Post" reported that the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) vowed to investigate media outlets suspected of sowing dissension, referring to ASTV (Asia Satellite TV) and Red Shirt TV and radio stations.

"There are media outlets that are extremely drawn to political movements and they are provocative, estrange others and create divisions among Thais," Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said in the media.

"The Nation" quoted in its 30 June issue Suwat Thongthanakul, editor of the People's Alliance for Democracy's (PAD) "ASTV Manager Weekly" magazine as saying, "The media's role must be different from the past…We must choose sides in order to protect national interests."

Though the respective media outlets of the Reds and Yellows are the ones being addressed by Col. Sansern, the net cast by the military might also catch mainstream media, so to speak, as they try to provide news coverage of the elections.

Lese majeste and cyber-crime law
Two tools used by the authorities in the past in going after media outlets are also in readiness: Section 112 of the Penal Code on lese majeste and its online equivalent as found in the provisions of the Computer Crime Act (CCA).

The lese majeste law has been widely used by political opponents the past five years in going after their rivals.

Thai Netizen Network's (TNN) Arthit Suriyawongkul said in a forum sponsored by SEAPA and the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) on 16 May 2011 that the number of people persecuted under the CCA increased from nine when it was enacted in 2007 to 79 in 2010.

He also noted that the number of websites shut down through court orders in 2010 increased from 2,277 in April midway through the protest rally to 9,289 in August 2010.

Between April and August 2010, around 47 community radio stations, almost all of them affiliated with the Red Shirts, were ordered closed. In April this year, some 13 community radio stations in Bangkok and surrounding provinces were also shut down. The authorities went after these stations after accusing them of broadcasting messages that were deemed offensive to the royal family.

Several groups like TNN, iLaw, and Section 112: Awareness Campaign recently issued a statement during the 17th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva calling on the government to reform the lese majeste law and the CCA.

Despite critics' assertion that Section 112 is much-abused by politicians, army chief Gen. Prayuth said in a statement that it is wrong to call for the removal of this law.

Street protests and journalists safety
Observers are already bracing for the possibility of a repeat of street protests and violent dispersals if things go awry after election day. Should this happen, many journalists might face the risk of death and injury. In last year's protests and rioting, two journalists were shot dead while dozens more were hurt. More than a year after these events, the suspects behind the deaths and injuries remain scot-free.

Freelance journalist Rand, who sustained three gunshot wounds on May 14 last year when government troops had tried to disperse Red Shirt protesters from their encampment in downtown Bangkok, observed that "foreign journalists in Bangkok are more prepared now to cover conflict than last year. I think last year's violence was a wake-up call to be ready and more prepared."

He affirmed the value not only of wearing a Kevlar helmet and vest but also of the importance of situational awareness when covering a conflict.

In the months following the crackdown, the TJA asked the International News Safety Institute (INSI) to conduct a safety training for Thai journalists.

On 20 June 2011, the TJA and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) issued a joint statement with several business groups calling for a halt to violence stemming from the political crisis and urged all political parties to accept the results of the elections.

"The media are doing their duty as watchdog and warning of possible violence after the election….We don't want to see journalists taking risks on a battlefield. We don't want to see journalists from around the world covering the fight among Thais," said TBJA president Visoot Komwacharapong.

Whether it will be another round of government crackdown or yet another violent series of protest rallies, freedom of expression in Thailand might be put to the test again soon.

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