Thai opposition TV channels face suspension for breaking junta rules

BANGKOK (AFP) - Two Thai television channels affiliated to the opposition Red Shirt movement will be taken off air for seven days for "violating" junta orders, an official said Tuesday, in the latest strike against freedom of expression in the military-ruled kingdom.

The country's sharply polarised political channels were one of the first casualties of the censorship imposed following the declaration of martial law and the coup last May.

But a ban on them was lifted around three months later on the condition they stayed clear of politics.

Suspension letters are being drafted for Peace TV, which features a daily programme by Red Shirts chairman Jatuporn Prompan, and 24 News, a senior official at Thai broadcasting authority the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) told AFP.

"NTC has decided to suspend the license for two television channels for seven days on the grounds they violated junta announcements," said the official, who declined to be named, without elaborating on the nature of the violation.

"The suspension will begin as soon as they receive the official notification letter," he said.

On his mid-morning programme Tuesday, Jatuporn said military officials who monitor the show had accused him of causing "divisions and misunderstandings".

"They allege that my speech has incited unrest. I want to ask are there any people going out and protesting against the authorities?"

The Red Shirts, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), back the toppled government of former premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

Post-coup, their leaders have either renounced the cause, fled into self-exile or - like Jatuporn - agreed to abandon politics.

His once rabble-rousing television rhetoric was staple viewing in the Red heartlands of northern Thailand where Yingluck - and her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra - are adored for their pro-poor policies.

Under junta rules the rebranded Red Shirt channel Peace TV has toned-down its tirades against the Bangkok-based elite but in recent months Jatuporn has spoken more directly against the ruling regime.

In February, he accused the junta of trying to provoke his members into a "fight" after a Red Shirt member was arrested on suspicion of defaming the royal family and junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha said a small bomb blast in Bangkok was the work of coup opponents - although he stopped short of directly blaming the UDD.

Thailand has been riven by bitter political divisions since 2006, when Thaksin's government was ousted in an earlier military coup, backed by the Bangkok-based royalist establishment.

They despise the Shinawatras - whose parties have won every election since 2001 - accusing them of poisoning politics with populism, corruption and cronyism.

"Yellow Shirt" or anti-Thaksin channels were also taken off air after the coup with several rebranding themselves once the ban was lifted.

On Tuesday Jatuporn said the suspension was "injustice, double-standards", claiming Peace TV was being singled out.

"As long as these conditions exist, reconciliation will never be achieved," he said.