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Thailand extends censorship against anti-govt protesters

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai authorities have banned four publications linked to an anti-government protest movement, the latest in a wave of censorship moves after a bloody crackdown on demonstrators seeking to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Thailand’s army chief Anupong Paochina signed an order this week to ban three newspapers and one magazine associated with the “red-shirt” protesters at the centre of the worst rioting in modern Thai history last week.

The bans to “protect national security” will further stifle communications by the protesters’ United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD).

Breach of the bans carry a maximum jail term of two years.

The move follows the blocking of scores of websites, community radio stations and the UDD’s television station, People’s Channel, under a state of emergency currently in place in Bangkok and 23 provinces.

A nine-week rally in Bangkok by the mostly rural and urban poor “red shirts,” who are demanding fresh elections, ended last week with a military crackdown that led to an orgy of rioting and arson in Bangkok’s commercial centre and at least six provinces.

At least 85 people, mostly demonstrators, have been killed and nearly 2,000 wounded since April 10 in the worst political violence in modern Thai history.

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The latest bans are likely to draw criticism from media activists in a country that has slipped from 65 in the world in 2002 for press freedom to 130 in 2009, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

The outlawed publications include the twice-weekly Truth Today newspaper, the weekly Thai Red News and Vivatha, and bi-monthly Voice of Taksin, which mimics the U.S. news magazine, Time, and is named after the protest movement’s figurehead, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“These media outlets are not real newspapers. They are tools for groups to create chaos in the country,” Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban told reporters.

“There are some community radio stations and some print media outlets which encourage people to be antagonistic towards one another so we have to do something.”

The bans come as Abhisit presses forward with a national reconciliation plan aimed at ending a divisive five-year political crisis that turned deadly this year.

One of the five key elements of the plan is to form an independent body to monitor all media, including state-controlled outlets, to ensure unbiased and balanced reporting.

Media reform campaigner Wilasinee Phiphitkul, an academic at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the bans could be justified given the intensity of the political crisis but stressed that the government should not abuse its powers.

“This is not a normal situation right now, it could be necessary to prevent more violence, but bans like this should only be for a limited time,” Wilasinee said.

“But it’s important that these bans cover media on all sides of the political divide that might threaten security, not just the red shirts’ media,” she said.

Editing by Jason Szep