By MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR / IPS WRITER
BANGKOK — When the Thai government imposed an emergency law cracking down on rampaging red-shirted protesters on the streets of Bangkok, the military, in combat gear, was not its only weapon. The state’s censors were given liberty to silence critical media.
By the weekend, this climate of censorship had spread beyond the capital and five neighboring provinces where the emergency decree is still in force. Community radio stations sympathetic to the anti-government ‘red-shirts’ in northern and northeastern provinces were raided by the police and closed down.
The information and technology ministry flexed its muscles, too, ordering Internet service providers to shut down 67 websites. That number may grow, warns a media rights activist, since "websites that were critical but not sympathetic to the ‘red-shirts’ have also been targeted."
The four-month-old coalition government, led by the Democrat Party, justifies such measures to prevent more violence and mayhem on the streets as was witnessed from April 13 through 14 in the capital. Clashes between angry ‘red-shirts’ and troops at a number of street corners resulted in over 100 people being injured and reportedly two deaths.
"The radio stations were closed because they were being used to incite violence," Buranaj Smutharakas, Democrat Party spokesman, told journalists. "The right to free speech ends when it is being used to call for violence."
"Although the government has brought to an end the ‘red rampage’ in Bangkok, the situation remains fragile," he added. "The government’s major efforts are to prevent [‘red shirt’] members from resorting to terrorism and [creating an] armed resistance movement."
Yet the act of censorship—beginning on April 13 with the shutting down of the satellite news broadcaster ‘D Station’, the mouthpiece of the ‘red shirts’—has inadvertently exposed the bias that grips local media. Mainstream print and broadcast media were not censored—they had portrayed the Democrat Party-led coalition in a positive light.
"The newspapers were not under pressure from the government. They chose to do it because they like the Democrats and their backers, hate the reds," a senior television journalist told IPS on the condition of anonymity. "So they have not to worry about censorship."
The mainstream television stations were under some pressure, he revealed. "My boss was told by a powerful person not to run pictures damaging to the military or to the government."
A respected media analyst faults the mainstream media for such one-sided coverage— where little effort was made to understand and explain why tens of thousands of ‘red shirts’ from the provinces and the capital responded to the protest call by the organisation leading the anti-government movement, the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).
"Reports about UDD rallies were not published, but when they were, it was more the negative aspect of the rallies," says Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, professor of communications at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "The media needs to cover all colors of Thailand’s politics because that is their responsibility to society. They have to try and be professional and neutral."
"The biased coverage by the mainstream media has made UDD supporters grow very unhappy and frustrated," she added in an interview. "These marginalized people have been left with little choice but to create their own alternative media space through community radio and websites on the Internet."
This, however, is not the first time where the alternative media has been a target of censorship, while the mainstream media remained untouched. Over 300 community and local radio stations were silenced by military operative days after the powerful Thai army staged a coup in September 2006, ousting from power then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"All northern community radio stations have been temporarily closed down after some were found to have provoked disunity among people and created misunderstanding about Tuesday’s military coup," the Bangkok Post, Thailand’s largest English-language paper, reported during the week of the country’s 18th putsch. "Community radios are now seen as a significant threat to the [junta’s] authority as they could be used by supporters of the ousted prime minister to incite public resentment against the [junta]."
The current round of censorship that targets the ‘red shirt’ media has parallels with the media policy of the country’s last military regime. Many of those who have been silenced were openly supportive of Thaksin, now living in exile as a fugitive for breaking conflict of interest laws, and wanted for corruption charges.
But the silenced radio stations and websites also aired views that called on the coalition government to dissolve the parliament and call fresh elections, attacked the military leadership and the conservative bureaucracy, and demanded that senior advisers to the kingdom’s revered monarch resign for their alleged role in the 2006 coup.
They were views that proved too much for the mainstream media to stomach. And the street violence engineered by the ‘red shirts’ a week ago—as part of a call by the UDD to stage a "revolution" on behalf of the poor—appears to have been the last straw for the Bangkok-based media powerhouses.
Newspapers responded with screaming headlines, gloating coverage, and shrill commentary at the failed ‘revolution’ of the ‘red shirts’. The television stations largely marched to the same tune.
‘Red shirts’ have been seething at the "one-sided" coverage of the mainstream media. "The press in Thailand is with the government. It is like a business partnership," said a 47-year-old resident of Bangkok who gave his name as Somchai. "They have let us down. They cannot be called a national media."
"We cannot trust the Thai journalists, because what we know is not reported," added Salukjit Sangmuang, a businesswoman, who, like Somchai, had joined some 500 ‘red shirts’ at an open field in the historic part of the capital on Apr. 14 to come to terms with the defeat their movement suffered at the hands of the combat-ready troops. "We depend on websites and foreign media for the news."
This news blackout has even brought out a controversial figure to help get the story of the ‘red shirts’ on the Internet: Lt Sunisa Lertpakawat, who has written two books that are fawning accounts of the fugitive Thaksin, despite her being an officer serving in the military.
"What I have seen on Thai television about the ‘red shirts’ is not the truth. A lot of incidents have not been shown," said the 34-year-old during a pause from video recording a scene of angry, weeping ‘red shirts’ at Sanam Luang, an open field surrounded by ancient temples and a palace. "The people are angry, because what the newspapers and television have said about them is not true."