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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Persecution of the media

The press reform goal of the government, specifically Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, clearly must begin at home. This is evident from last week's shambolic re-arrest of website director Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Her case is part of a continuing and large campaign. Ms Chiranuch's serial bail payments, and her growing calendar of past and future court and police interrogation appearances show serious inattention, even disrespect, for the constitutional concept of freedom of the press.

 There are many problems with the massive media crackdown by the Abhisit government. The most obvious is the continual use of the Computer Crime Act to intimidate and silence websites, blogs, videos and other forms of legitimate media. The thousands of times this law has been invoked is telling. It means that authorities either cannot or will not bring normal legal charges. It is enormously discriminatory. If an article, a photo or a video appears in a newspaper or on a TV station it is legal; but because it is on the internet, it is not.

Back in the days of the Thaksin government, the public was assured that the Computer Crime Act (CCA) was necessary to protect against, and to prosecute, online crime. The purpose of the law was to ensure that e-commerce would be reliable, and that cheating consumers would be rigorously policed. Instead, successive governments have used the CCA to compile a list of more than 110,000 websites that must be blocked from the public's view. The list is secret, the reason for each website's ban is secret, and there is no appeal. This cannot happen with newspapers, magazines, books, TV and radio stations and so on.

Ms Chiranuch has been the personification of an unseemly, unnecessary and eventually self-defeating government policy. The current government of Mr Abhisit did not start the persecution but it has pursued it more aggressively than its predecessors. They have brought in the military in the form of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES). The website has been blocked repeatedly, under a variety of names. It is clear to all observers that the government considers Prachatai a media enemy, and has used strong-arm tactics against it.

Of course Ms Chiranuch and Prachatai must obey the law. There are many laws which protect the public against media offenders, including libel, defamation, national security, incitement and lese majeste. Use of the latter law has become controversial in many cases. Even Mr Abhisit has admitted that enemies try to misuse this law for political purposes. Courts will decide Ms Chiranuch's guilt or innocence, but her many supporters claim, and demonstrate their belief, that she is being unfairly persecuted.

With up to 120,000 websites banned, the government has surpassed the infamous and odious ''great firewall of China'' in censorship. The red shirts' TV station was never prosecuted, but has been banned. Thailand has fallen in the eyes of the world, in rankings of world press freedom. Freedom House now rates Thai media as ''partly free'', down from ''free'' in 2002. Reporters Without Borders says our media are the 130th freest in the world, not nearly as free as those of Indonesia or even the Central African Republic.

Mr Abhisit, his ministers and security officials must take steps to stop the downhill trend of press freedom. It was interesting that the premier put media reform near the top of his agenda to achieve reconciliation. But so long as politically-inspired persecution continues against selective media outlets and respected figures, reform is clearly impossible.

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