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‘Gagged’ Thai media fights for a voice as elections loom

Bangkok, Thailand – Journalist Sirote Klampaiboon is one of the most popular presenters on Thailand’s Voice TV, a digital broadcaster that has been penalised at least 20 times for its reporting since the military seized control of the country five years ago and clamped down on freedom of expression. Last month, the military government said…

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‘Gagged’ Thai media fights for a voice as elections loom

Bangkok, Thailand – Journalist Sirote Klampaiboon is one of the most popular presenters on Thailand’s Voice TV, a digital broadcaster that has been penalised at least 20 times for its reporting since the military seized control of the country five years ago and clamped down on freedom of expression.

Last month, the military government said it would suspend Voice TV for 15 days claiming two of its programmes – Wake Up News and Tonight Thailand – included material that was “confusing and seditious”.

But after the channel fought back, a court ruled the action illegal.

The TV station’s talk shows have long made people in high places feel “uncomfortable”, Sirote said, adding that that was the reason he disappeared from screens for a month in September.

But the election campaign has opened some room for debate.

“It’s a more chaotic situation so you can find the space to report things more openly and be more aggressive,” Sirote told Al Jazeera.

“The sources now are everywhere, so they (the government) don’t know how to deal with it.”

A slew of restrictive laws has hobbled the Thai media since the armed forces under General Prayuth Chan-ocha took control of the government in 2014 and cracked down on freedom of expression.

But while the removal of restrictions on political activity in December has allowed parties to campaign, there has been no move to relax draconian regulations surrounding the media.

“There’s an expectation from the public for journalists to do more,” said Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

“But from the media side, they have resorted to self-censorship. They are very cautious. How much can you do when you are basically gagged.”

Authority to censor

A series of special orders passed between 2014 and 2016 by the National Council for Peace and Order – the official name for the military government – ban the media from covering issues seen as undermining national security, insulting the monarchy and criticism of the administration.

The decrees also cover disinformation and defamation, allowing authorities to censor media content.

Prayuth’s administration has far broader powers over the media than any previous military government, according to Chakrit Permpool, an adviser to the Thai Journalists’ Association.

The group urged the military last December to cancel the decrees to establish a “genuine, democratic environment” and help voters make an informed decision.

Thailand has at least 20 broadcasters, some state-owned and others are private.

Since the election was called, broadcasters have been holding regular debates among the election candidates, although Prayuth has declined to participate.

At the end of February, a state-owned broadcaster booked 10 novice politicians for its weekly election show to discuss the key issues.

They matched the young politicians with a young audience, inviting 100 first-time voters into the studio and giving each of them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down card to hold up to indicate their thoughts on the issues being debated.

Orawan Choodee, a veteran political journalist, fielded questions on a range of topical issues – from what the young people thought about Prayuth’s decision not to participate in the debates to their views on the military government’s 20-year national plan.

A few days later, Orawan posted on Facebook that she had been suspended from the channel.

The broadcaster later said it was a “misunderstanding” about scheduling.

“Thailand’s elections won’t be considered credible if the media is gagged and critical commentary about military rule is prohibited,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement this week.

“The junta should understand that an election that is little more than a preordained victory for military rule will only be treated as a mockery of democracy.”

It is not only the traditional and mainstream media that are struggling under restrictive laws.

Digital and social media also operate under strict rules that cover not only reporters, but the parties and candidates who want to use those platforms to expand the reach of their campaign.

Under new electoral rules they must register their social media handles with the authorities, and risk disqualification, jail and political bans if they do anything more than discuss policies.

Some 50 million Thais are on Facebook, so politicians cannot ignore the platform, but at the same time, it also carries significant risk.

“Facebook is being used as an arena to disarm political rivals,” said Aim Sinpeng, who researches Southeast Asia’s digital politics at the University of Sydney.

“This is in stark contrast to the 2011 election where cyberspace was much more open. Today, it’s no longer possible for political parties not to be on social media, but by being on it, it opens up a wide array of potential liabilities not all political parties can afford.”

An election “war room” has been set up to trawl through hundreds and thousands of posts to make sure they do not breach any of the rules.

Sawang Boonmee, the deputy secretary-general of the Elections Commission of Thailand, told the Reuters news agency his team was looking for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates or use rude language”.
Nevertheless, not all media outlets have retreated into self-censorship.

Despite the repressive environment, media such as Matichon Group, a publicly listed publisher of three national newspapers including Khaosod whose online edition has attracted a huge following, and Prachathai, an independent non-profit online paper, have continued to question and investigate.

Voice TV is owned by Pathongthae Shinawatra, son of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but Sirote said Pathongthae takes no part in editorial decisions.

“I never consider him to interfere in our work,” Sirote said, noting that they are critical of Shinawatra successor party Pheu Thai, too.

“It never happened, not even for a single minute. The content comes from my judgement all the time.”

SEAPA’s Bacalla urged Voice TV to take legal action over last month’s attempt to close the station down. In court, she gave evidence, pointing out that as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Thailand had an obligation to safeguard freedom of expression and opinion.

“It was a victory not just for Voice TV, but for the rest of the media, too,” she said.

“In trying to push back they managed to make a statement.”

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Saudi Aramco says customers unaffected by Houthi attack on Jeddah

Monday’s attack knocked out a tank that contained 10 percent of all fuel stored a the Jeddah plant, Saudi Aramco official says.Oil giant Saudi Aramco says customers were unaffected by an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah. One of the facility’s tanks…

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Saudi Aramco says customers unaffected by Houthi attack on Jeddah

Monday’s attack knocked out a tank that contained 10 percent of all fuel stored a the Jeddah plant, Saudi Aramco official says.Oil giant Saudi Aramco says customers were unaffected by an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah.
One of the facility’s tanks was hit by a missile in early on Monday.
The attack knocked out 10 percent of all fuel that was stored at the plant, a Saudi Aramco official said on Tuesday, adding that the tank – one of 13 at the facility – is currently out of action.
The official described the site as a “critical facility” that distributes more than 120,000 barrels of products per day.
A fire caused by the attack was extinguished in about 40 minutes with no casualties, he said.
The attack was confirmed by a Saudi official who told the Saudi state news agency (SPA) it was a “terrorist attack with a projectile”.
The oil company’s production and export facilities are mostly in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, more than 1,000km (621 miles) away from Jeddah, across the country.
Announcing the attack, a military spokesman for the Houthis warned that “operations will continue”.
Yahya Sarea said the attack was carried out with a Quds-2 type winged missile. He also posted a satellite image with the label: “North Jeddah bulk plant-Saudi Aramco”.
“The strike was very accurate, and ambulances and fire engines rushed to the target,” Sarea said.
That facility is just southeast of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, an important site that handles incoming Muslim pilgrims en route to nearby Mecca.
Renewed violence
Yemen has been mired in conflict since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 to restore the Yemeni government, which had been removed from power in the capital Sanaa by Houthi forces in late 2014.
Cross-border attacks by Houthi forces have escalated since late May when a truce prompted by the novel coronavirus pandemic expired. The Saudi-led coalition has responded with air raids on Houthi-held territory.
The Houthis control most of north Yemen and most large urban areas. They say they are fighting a corrupt system.
Sarea said the attack was carried out in response to the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen.
The claimed attack came just after a visit by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The kingdom also just hosted the annual G20 summit, which concluded on Sunday.

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US appoints first Venezuela ambassador in a decade amid tensions

The two nations have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations began to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.The United States has its first ambassador for Venezuela in 10 years despite Washington having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations. James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a…

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US appoints first Venezuela ambassador in a decade amid tensions

The two nations have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations began to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.The United States has its first ambassador for Venezuela in 10 years despite Washington having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations.
James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a US Senate voice vote.
The South Carolina native takes the job that he will carry out from the capital of neighbouring Colombia as Venezuela endures an historic economic and political crisis.
The US and Venezuela have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations first started to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.
The two nations totally broke diplomatic ties last year, each withdrawing its diplomats shortly after Washington backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s leader.
Story, 50, will likely play a key role in helping guide US policy on Venezuela during the transition of President-elect Joe Biden.
Biden’s win has sparked debate among those who back President Donald Trump’s hardline approach of isolating his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro and others who say it is time for a new course.
The critics say heavy sanctions have failed to remove Maduro from power, opening Venezuela to US competitors such as China, Russia and Iran, while making life harder on millions of residents of the South American nation.
The US leads a coalition of dozens of nations that rejected Maduro following his election in 2018 to a second term in a vote Washington called fraudulent.
The US has since heavily sanctioned Maduro, his inner circle and the state-run oil firm, attempting to isolate them.
The Trump administration offered a $15m reward for Maduro’s arrest after a US court indicted him on drug charges.

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‘UAE, Israel can stamp out Islamophobia, anti-Semitism’

People to people contact, academic, civil society exchanges and cooperation will go a long way in change mindsets, Ban Ki-moon says. Countries like the UAE and Israel who have signed the Abraham Accords should stamp out anti-semitism and Islamophobia and devise curriculums to educate their youth on the significance of the peace deal, said former…

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‘UAE, Israel can stamp out Islamophobia, anti-Semitism’

People to people contact, academic, civil society exchanges and cooperation will go a long way in change mindsets, Ban Ki-moon says.

Countries like the UAE and Israel who have signed the Abraham Accords should stamp out anti-semitism and Islamophobia and devise curriculums to educate their youth on the significance of the peace deal, said former UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
He said that one of the major achievements of the deal – considered a huge political and diplomatic win – is that it opens up a “cooperative space not only for leaders but also for citizens of all the participating countries”
“The architects of this important agreement must ensure that the Accords is not an agreement just for their countries but for their people. Abraham Accords should serve as a launchpad for the sustainable peace and prosperity in the region,” Ban Ki-moon said while addressing a virtual conference on ‘The Abraham Accords: Advancing UAE-Israel, Regional, and Muslim-Jewish Cooperation’ organised by UK-based Emirates Society.
Stressing on the important role of education in building secure, peaceful, resilient and prosperous societies in both a short and long term, the Secretary General said it is his “sincere hope that the UAE and Israel and others redouble their sustained effort to educate their students and citizens – both young and old – about the significance of this important agreement and each other.”
“Devising curriculum and expanding global citizenship education as well as being aggressive about stamping out instances of anti-Semitism and islamophobia are important steps to take in this regard, he added.
He said people to people contact, academic, civil society exchanges and cooperation will go a long way in helping to change mindset and begin a dynamic new era of cooperation.
Palestinian cause
The UAE is the first GCC country and the third Arab nation to establish diplomatic relations with Israel by signing the US-brokered Abraham Accords on September 15. Bahrain and Sudan also followed suit and have signed peace deals with Israel.
The deal is considered a game changer for peace and stability in the region, as in exchange, Israel has agreed to temporarily halt annexations in the West Bank.
Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Cooperation, said the UAE continues to consider the issue of a Palestinian state as the most important one but without impeding opportunities for dialogue and open communication.
She said Abraham Accords was born from a “desire to change the business as usual approach” that has mired the countries of Middle East in conflict for long.
Even as the UAE continues to work for its own national agenda, Al Hashimi said the country is “really looking to learn from each other and also to explain to one another who we are and what matters to us”.
“And it does matter to the Arab and the Muslim world that a Palestinian state in its rightful place … exists.”
Ban Ki-Moon said it would be difficult to forge lasting peace without addressing the Palestinian question as well as issues like the final status of Jerusalem and West Bank settlement.
“To truly advance the vision of peace throughout the Middle East, we should not forget that the Palestinians must be involved in determining a future that is based on security and prosperity for all people in the region. I hope that Abraham Accords can function as a springboard for invigorated action on ensuring a negotiated two-state solution aligned with the relevant UN security council resolutions.”
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Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.

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