By Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Thailand’s prime minister said Monday he favored convening a special parliamentary session to talk about pro-democracy protests which have intensified since last week, and he vowed to protect the monarchy as thousands demonstrated here for a fifth day in defiance of a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, the chief of an emergency task force said he had ordered relevant agencies to take down or block content disseminated by four media outlets and a student organizer’s Facebook page that were deemed as spreading “bad messages” or defaming the royals.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said that because it was essential to safeguard the monarchy, his cabinet on Tuesday would discuss whether to summon lawmakers for a special session.
“Today the government affirmed its support for parliament to open so that it can discuss the matter [ongoing protests] to reduce the conflict as much as possible. Tomorrow the cabinet will discuss [calling a parliamentary session,]” Prayuth, a former junta and army chief who led a military coup in 2014, told reporters.
“The key matter is the government must do all it can to protect the monarchy. This is the duty of all Thai people. The government has compromised and [we] beg for no more vandalism of government and civilians’ properties.”
During the day, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai met with the ruling coalition and opposition whips to discuss calling a special session to address the situation, but they did not reach a decision.
The student-led protests against Prayuth’s government began in mid-July and increased in intensity during the past several days, with activists calling for the ouster of a government filled with key figures from a 2014 coup that toppled an elected government, as well as reforms to laws shielding Thailand’s all-powerful monarchy, among other demands.
Crackdown on media
Four Thai media outlets, Prachatai, Voice TV, the Standard and the Reporters, as well as a student Facebook page called Free Youth, are being investigated for allegedly spreading disinformation about the protests and the monarchy, and for sedition, national police chief Suwat Changyodsuk said on Monday.
Suwat, who also heads the emergency task force, said media must report only facts and not speculation.
The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission were ordered to take down objectionable content from these four outlets, he said but denied that this was akin to censorship.
“We don’t have a policy to shutter the media, none were closed down. … [We] will take down certain pieces case-by-case and tackle certain [online] posters who disseminated bad messages,” Suwat said.
“[Facebook] Live can be done but there are cases where some posters presumed that officials shot at the crowd when some people ran to one corner. It was speculation and if something like that causes anger which leads to clashes, we have to take down that content,” he said.
Puttipong Punnagun, the minister of the Digital Economy and Society, said he believed that between 300,000 and 400,000 items of content had violated Thai laws.
“We will summon them [the four media outlets media and the group that runs Free Youth] to discuss this and have them delete such content,” Puttipong said.
“Live broadcasts can be done but in certain situations when the protesters use wording deemed insulting to royals or a breach of law, we want them to avoid broadcasting that.”
Suwat also said he was looking into restrictions on the Telegram messaging app, but he didn’t elaborate on what measures he was contemplating. Pro-democracy activists have been using Telegram to communicate among one another.
An executive of online newspaper Prachatai, one of the four news outlets being investigated, told BenarNews that his publication would follow its own code of ethics.
“If the authorities ask us to delete certain clips, we will consider that but we will judge them by our own standards. We will keep them as long as they conform to our code of ethics,” said Tewarit Maneechai, the managing director of Prachatai.
“We will continue to report the same way we did before until we cannot do it. We have not done anything wrong.”
Elsewhere, a Thai academic criticized the order to take down content the authorities deemed to be illegal.
“The government’s move is inappropriate and inconsistent with international norms and democratic principles,” Dr. Pansasiri Kularb, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts, told BenarNews.
“The government should not deprive the people’s right to free flow of information.”
Also on Monday, the prestigious Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Thailand (FCCT) said it was “deeply concerned” over the government’s move against the four media outlets.
“A free media is an essential element in any democratic society, and bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threat of bans, suspensions, censorship or prosecution hanging over them,” the club said in a statement.
“The justification used in this instance by the authorities under the controversial new state of emergency is that some reports may undermine national security. This is overly broad, and can easily be abused to silence reporting that is accurate but makes the government uncomfortable.”
In response to the amplified protests, which on Wednesday briefly trapped a motorcade carrying the queen and her stepson, Prayuth early in the morning of Oct. 15 declared an emergency and a new ban on large political gatherings in Bangkok. On Friday, as thousands of protestors defied both the ban and the emergency, the prime minister said he would not resign.
Still, through the weekend and on Monday activists again defied those orders and took to the streets of the Thai capital, with police estimating that some 20,000 protesters have gathered every day since Oct. 14.
Since Oct. 13, as many as 74 demonstrators have been arrested and charged, some for sedition, among other alleged violations, police said. A person convicted of sedition faces a maximum jail term of seven years, legal experts told BenarNews.