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Thai police probe media, as thousands again defy protest ban

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police said on Monday they had ordered an investigation of four news outlets and imposed curbs on messaging app Telegram under emergency measures to try to stop protests, but thousands of people defied a ban on demonstrations for a fifth day.

FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy protesters shine their mobile phone lights during an anti-government protest, in Bangkok, Thailand October 18, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The announcement of the media investigations prompted accusations of an attack on press freedom by the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former junta leader the protesters are seeking to drive from office.

Thousands of protesters gathered at an intersection in Bangkok chanting “keep fighting”, in the latest demonstration in three months of protests that have also called for reforms to the monarchy.

“This action takes away people’s rights to information,” said 19-year-old Jin, who like many protesters was only willing to give one name.

The government ordered a ban on news and online information that could affect national security last Thursday, when it also banned political gatherings of more than five people in the face of the growing challenge.

According to a police document dated Oct. 16, investigations have been ordered into content from four media outlets as well as the Facebook page of a protest group.

Some of the content could “cause confusion and instigate causing unrest to society”, police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen said, adding that the broadcast regulator and digital ministry would investigate and take appropriate action.

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300,000 ILLEGAL ITEMS

Putchapong Nodthaisong, a spokesman for the digital ministry, said it had requested court orders to take down content by the four media outlets and the Facebook page of the protest group Free Youth, among more than 300,000 pieces of content it said violated Thai laws over the last week.

The Manushya Foundation, an independent group which campaigns for online freedom, called the measures an attempt to silence free media.

“Since the ban on protests did not work, the military-backed government hopes to create fear of telling the truth,” its director Emilie Palamy Pradichit said. “We urge free media to resist.”

Police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk also said he had ordered the digital ministry to restrict Free Youth’s group on Telegram, a messaging application that protesters have used to coordinate in recent days.

Protests have taken place every day since they were banned.

Police said 74 people have been arrested since Oct. 13. Nineteen were granted bail on Monday, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group said. Reuters was unable to contact the court for comment.

Protesters seek the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth, accusing him of engineering last year’s election to keep hold of power he first seized in a 2014 coup. He says the election was fair.

The protesters have also grown more vocal in demanding reforms to the monarchy to reduce the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests or protesters’ demands.

Prayuth has said he will not quit. On Monday, he said he supported a proposal for a special parliament session to discuss the situation. His supporters have a majority in parliament.

“We are just asking people not to do wrong and destroy the government and people’s property,” he said. “What the government needs to do is to protect the monarchy.”

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson

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