Thailand shuts down news site linked to ex-PM as protests pause

21 Oct

A Thai news outlet connected to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ordered to close Tuesday over its coverage of anti-government protests that have rocked the capital for nearly a week.

Voice TV, a website partly owned by Thaksin's family, was one of four media organisations under investigation because of their reporting of the ongoing protest movement.

Thousands of protesters have massed daily in the capital since last week, flouting an emergency edict prohibiting gatherings of more than four people.

But they appeared to take a break Tuesday, with only several hundred gathered at the usual protest sites.

The largely leaderless youth movement is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- a former army chief and mastermind of a 2014 coup -- as well as a re-writing of the military-drafted constitution they say rigged last year's election in his favour.

They are also calling for the reform of the kingdom's powerful and ultra-wealthy monarchy -- a long-taboo subject.

Prayut on Tuesday accused media outlets of spreading false news. 

"Media freedom is important but in some cases there are some media outlets disseminating distorted information that is inciting unrest," he said after a court order following a complaint from the digital economy ministry. 

The four media outlets were accused of publishing and broadcasting material that "violated computer crimes laws and the emergency decree", the ministry said.
Voice TV executive Makin Petplai denied their coverage had jeopardised national security.

"For 11 years, Voice TV has been committed to democracy, giving space to people's opinions from all sides with openness, transparency, and responsibility to facts," he said in a statement on their website.

Voice TV political commentator Virot Ali said the station will continue to broadcast online until they receive the court's order in writing.

"This is direct interference by the state," he told AFP. 

"We've been singled out because the state wants to deter the other platforms."

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand expressed deep concern that the Royal Thai Police were investigating Voice TV, along with Prachatai, The Reporters and The Standard.

The four outlets have been broadcasting live footage over Facebook during the protests.

"A free media is an essential element in any democratic society and bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threats of bans, suspensions, censorships or prosecution hanging over them," the club said.

Tuesday's protests were much more low key, with demonstrators gathered at train stations chanting "long live the people" while giving the three-finger salute that has become a symbol of the movement.

"The state's order to shut down the media is a big slap in the face to people, it shows that the state deemed that people can't make their own judgement," Tatthep "Ford" Ruangprapaikitseri, 23, told AFP.

The court ruling comes a day after the ministry of digital economy and society said it had flagged more than 325,000 messages on social media platforms that violated the Computer Crimes Act, which critics say is used to muzzle dissent.

The hashtag #SaveFreePress was trending in Thailand on Monday.

The court is yet to announce a decision on whether to shut down the other three media outlets.