TOPICS: Coup masters ban community radio

While Thailand’s military-appointed PM seeks international approval and Bangkok’s affluent citizens continue to praise last month’s coup, a different reality is unfolding in the country’s north and northeast provinces. One word sums it up: censorship.

Media silenced by the junta are community and local radio stations in the poorer reaches of the country. The impact of this ban has even led some locals who run grassroots media in the provinces of Ubon Ratchathani and Amnat Charoen, close to the Thai-Laos border, to avoid talking about it openly, fearing the consequences. “The community radio people say they do not want to talk about the ban at the moment,” an NGO worker who uses community radio in Thailand’s northeast for her programmes said. “It is a very sensitive issue. They feel vulnerable.” Programmes in local dialects that reached out to marginalised communities to raise awareness about migrant rights, labour rights, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS prevention have gone off air. “All community radios have gone silent in the north,” Pranom Somwong, an activist with an NGO championing the rights of migrant labour in the northern city of Chiang Mai, said.

In the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, for instance, close to 300 community radio stations were ordered to go off the air a day after the military coup on September 19. In the Nan province, a further 30 community radio stations were shut. The junta justified such censorship in letters sent to the grassroots broadcasters. The letters declared that the prevailing 1997 constitution had been revoked by the coup and so had the article contained in it on broadcasting rights, ‘Section 40’. This article protects “‘transmission frequencies for radio or TV broadcasting” as a “national communication resource for public interest.”

The crackdown on community radio stations was part of a larger offensive mounted by the junta to suppress any form of political activity after the coup, since these northern and northeastern belts of poverty had supported the ousted premier for his pro-poor policies. Political rallies, political discussions involving more than five people and distributing leaflets with political messages are on the military’s banned list.

The coup has also brought into clear view the influence the military has always had on the mainstream electronic media as part of its national security policy. Of the 524 national radio stations, the army controls 220 stations, 140 come under the Public Relations Department and the rest are shared between the police, universities and a former government department. The continued “media blackout” makes the junta a perfect candidate for criticism by the UN, states the Asian Human Rights Commission. “We call for the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression to issue an urgent communication to the authorities in Thailand, raising concerns about their apparent efforts to restrict freedom of speech there.” — IPS