Premier draws Thai king into media row

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The Independent Online

The people of Thailand always thought themselves lucky in the openness and diversity of their press. Or so it was until a bitter dispute that has drawn in foreign and Thai reporters, an American senator, Thailand's Prime Minister and even its King, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

This week, a Thai television station announced it was voluntarily suspending its coverage of politics in protest at alleged manipulation by the government. The Nation Multimedia Group made its announcement on the front of its English-language newspaper, The Nation; alongside, adorned with a Hitler moustache, was a cartoon of the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

The trouble began in January with an article in the Hong Kong Far Eastern Economic Review. The piece, by the magazine's two Bangkok correspondents, reported what many Thais had been saying in private for weeks: that Mr Thaksin, a populist businessman, has fallen out of favour with King Bhumibol.

It is hard to doubt that this is true: in a speech in December the King himself described the country as being "in a state of disaster instead of prosperity". No institution in Thailand is treated with greater reverence than the monarchy, and it was this sensitivity that Mr Thaksin used to his advantage.

Within days, the magazine was removed from sale inside Thailand. The two journalists, one British and one American, had their visas revoked. On Monday, the magazine's editor in Hong Kong sent a letter to the Thai parliament affirming his respect for the Thai monarchy and apologising for any misunderstanding, and on Thursday their expulsion orders were reversed. But that was just the start.

Last week, the British magazine The Economist published a lengthy survey of Thailand , including the following sentence about the king's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn: "Bangkok gossips like to swap tales of his lurid personal life." Factually, this is also perfectly true, but the reaction was swift. The Economist's distributors were contacted by the police; their 10,000 copies of the magazine were never distributed.

Thai journalists weighed in on behalf of their foreign colleagues and found that they too were not immune. Ten days ago the Nation television channel was airing an interview with two leading critics of Mr Thaksin. Mysteriously, the programme suddenly went off the air. The cable operator blamed "technical problems". Then on Tuesday, the Nation radio station was ordered off the air.

Such alleged abuses of power and the government's ruinous economic policies have been chronicled in detail by the Far Eastern Economic Review and were duly recorded in the Economist's survey.

Mr Thaksin has now caught the attention of the American Senator Jesse Helms, who hinted this week that US aid to Thailand might be in danger.

The Prime Minister affects to be unconcerned. He said: "I've been working so hard these days I don't have time to read newspapers or listen to radio news. The more I read, the worse headache I'll have."

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