THAILAND: Live television news blacked out during coup

Reports say that military took over the airwaves, declared temporary martial law

By Angilee Shah
Contributing Writer

Tuesday, Septemeber 19, 2006

When soldiers led by army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin staged a coup late Tuesday to remove from power embattled caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, live local and international television news was restricted.

Soldiers seized government offices, took up posts around the Thai capital of Bangkok and took control of local broadcast media. An AsiaMedia contributer, Paul Ehrlich in Bangkok, reported that as of Wednesday morning international channels, including the BBC, CNN and CNBC, are unavailable. Local television stations are now repeating homages to the king, which the BBC describes as images of the royal family and patriotic songs.

Philip Golingai, Bangkok correspondent for The Star in Malaysia, reported that even by 11 p.m. on Tuesday, tourists and locals seemed unaware that a coup was in progress. There was no live news on television, except for announcements from Gen. Sonthi on the army-run Channel 15. The Associated Press reported that by Wednesday, normally busy streets and tourist areas in Bangkok closed early.

Goligai also reported that "Thai soldiers carrying M-16 assault rifles with yellow ribbon tied to the barrel" surrounded the office of The Nation, one of Thailand's largest English dailies. "The soldiers were friendly and spoke to the journalists outside the office," Golingai wrote.

The Bangkok Post website, another major English news outlet, was slowed down significantly throughout the day as Thais turned to the Internet for the news. The Post reports that websites in Thailand experienced very heavy traffic. Both The Nation and the Bangkok Post were published this morning with the headlines "Coup!" and the "COUP D'ETAT" respectively, Ehrlich said.

An announcement by the Prime Minister in a television broadcast from New York, in which he declared a state of emergency and fired Gen. Sonthi, was cut short. The Washington Post (subscription required) reported that troops arrested the station manager who attempted to broadcast the address. Gen. Sonthi revoked the state of emergency soon afterward.

Thaksin also canceled his scheduled Tuesday evening speech to the U.N. General Assembly, a U.N. official said. A spokesman for Thaksin, who was in New York and scheduled to address the General Assembly, insisted that the government was still in control and the coup "could not succeed." It remains uncertain when the prime minister will return home.

The parliament and the constitution have been suspended. The head of the army will assume prime ministerial powers, the army said.

Additional reporting by Vincent Lim.