Wikileaks: Junta and the slippery slope of censorship

11 03 2012

In a Wikileaks cable dated 22 September 2006, a few days after the military junta used U.S. tanks to make yet another coup, this time throwing out elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Ambassador Ralph Boyce comments on post-putsch censorship.

The cable offers interesting insights from reporters who talked with the embassy about the events of the night of the coup, as the military quickly sent its troops out to media houses:

State-owned MCOT Channel 9 reporters said they aired Prime Minister Thaksin’s emergency statement only after ITV refused. After Thaksin had been on the air for a couple of minutes, armed army personnel burst into the Channel 9 studio, asked where the Control Room was, and demanded that the technicians cut off the broadcast. The screen went blank for a few minutes, and then Channel 9 began running the Channel 5 stock footage paying homage to the King.

In fact, by the time Thaksin was cut off at Channel 9, all Thai free-to-air TV was required to use “the same feed from army-owned and operated Channel 5…”. The embassy seems happy to report that “by mid-morning the next day they had returned to ‘regular’ programming…”. That this only included “positive” news about the putsch seemed not to bother the embassy too much.

Embassy staff are said to have visited various television stations:

At ITV, … armed soldiers lined the front gate, front door, and newsroom. A huge truck and armored vehicle were parked near the entrance, with more vehicles at the exit. ITV reporters and anchors said the military asked them not to broadcast material that might have a “negative impact” or “cause any resistance or disturbance.”

ITV staff stated “they felt the soldiers’  presence had an ‘oppressive’ effect on their work.”

The “entertainment-oriented Channel 3 has only a few soldiers guarding the entrance and news building, with no trucks or equipment.” At Channel 3 it was reported that a “producer said the military has requested that the station not air negative comments about the CDRM.”

Interestingly, the Nation Channel also had a” significant military presence, with armed guards and trucks at the gate and five soldiers with rifles (with the clips out) outside and inside the newsroom.” This was not to intimidate.

The president of the Nation Channel, Adisak Limprungpatanakij, is described as “avidly anti-Thaksin,” claimed the “coup has not affected press freedom.” He said the military commander told him:

the troops were to provide security to the Nation Channel and assist in linking to Channel 5 pool coverage. Nation Channel staff happily keep the soldiers well-fed during their stay.

The cable continues to note that “there is no troop presence whatsoever at ASTV, the free satellite TV network owned by anti-Thaksin campaigner Sondhi [Limthongkul].”

Foreign news was censored:

 For two days after the coup, pictures of or interviews about Thaksin triggered an interruption…. For example, UBC cut a BBC interview with Pasook Pongpaijit [Pasuk Phongpaichit], an academic mildly critical of the coup, and a CNN interview with Paul Handley, author of a book critical of the King.

The embassy says that after two days, “CNN, BBC and MSNBC are now broadcasting normally.” Normality was also claimed for the print media. Indeed, the claim is made that this media is “freer” than before the coup!

This claim is laughable, especially when the cable cites The Nation’s Pana Janviroj, who says that self-censorship is not even at work because: “We sympathize with the CDRM, so there is (no need for) self-censorship.”

Turning to radio, without noting that most stations were controlled by the military, the embassy bleats that a “well-known radio personality noted on air that, in contrast to past coups, no one tried to review or censor broadcasts.”

But outside the sphere of military control, it is acknowledged that “community radio stations have been temporarily banned in the provinces; local military officials have said this is because these stations are difficult to monitor and control.”

On the internet,

the Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) called in all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to try to control website content, under threat of closure. Thus far, the CDRM has not closed any website completely.

… All of the major Thai chat sites have announcements posted that the country is under Martial Law and postings should be “careful and constructive.”

The “Politics Board” of was shut down yesterday following an influx of strong anti-coup messages. The board is back up, and even now, roughly half of the messages are mildly critical of the coup, although opinions are expressed in a sarcastic way.

In the face of all this censorship, the embassy doesn’t warn of the slippery slope of censorship. Sure, the embassy might have mumbled to junta something about “press freedom,” but seemed more interested in giving the impression that the censorship was light or even less than under Thaksin, and that everything was getting back to “normal.”

Of course, the military and royalists took to the slippery slope like Olympic downhill racers, and under the military-backed, royalist regime led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, censorship became especially intense as a regime of repression was put in place.



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