Prime Minister Abhisit V8ejjajiva on 6 June 2010 announced that the Thai government will indefinitely extend the state of emergency over the country.
The state of emergency gives the government more sweeping powers than the Internal Security Act, under which Bangkok was placed under when the Red Shirts group began its protest rallies in the capital on March this year.
With the state of emergency imposed on 7 April 2010, the Thai military was empowered to restore order and allow the government to impose curfews, ban public gatherings of more than five people, censor and ban media from disseminating news that ’causes panic.’ According to a report by the Associated Press, the measure also “also allows security officials to detain suspects without charge for up to 30 days”.
Though the Thai government has expressed its concern that incendiary messages in the media might threaten national security, it is also worth noting that the state of emergency has a tremendous impact on the free expression situation of Thailand.
Rights and free speech advocates insist that government should use existing laws and the courts to go after supposedly dangerous speech, rather than using and abusing the emergency decree to arbitrarily close down or block media outlets.
The Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the Thailand Cable TV Association had issued a statement shortly after the government announced on 8 April 2010 that it has blocked the broadcasts of the People’s Channel, an opposition-run satellite TV channel, stressing that shutting down stations in this way violates the Constitution.
The government’s dispersal of the Red Shirt rally at Ratchaprasong Intersection and Lumpini Park on 19 May 2010 and the subsequent riots marked a peak in free expression-related incidents.
On 20 May, some 600 soldiers closed down two community radio stations in Ubon Ratchathani province and arrested the owner of one of the stations. The soldiers also confiscated broadcasting equipment.
Online media also felt the impact of the emergency measure, with 1,900 websites blocked since 19 May, according to Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of prachatai.com. This is a big increase from the 35 sites initially shut down when the emergency measure was imposed on 7 April.
Prachatai.com itself, a prominent and independent website, is already on its sixth change of URL after repeated blockings by the government.
Editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk of the Red Shirt group’s “Voice of Thaksin” and “Red News” was arrested on 24 May 2010, together with Chulalongkorn University assistant professor Suthachai Yimprasert, after they presented themselves to the police in response to a summons to appear to hear charges. Neither man was charged though Sutachai was later released. Somyot remain detained at an Army base in Saraburi province.
SEAPA (www.seapa.org) is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow if Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism; the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association; and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism.