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Junta makes audacious move in stealth battle with media

THE RULING National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) came under heavy criticism when it issued its Announcement No 97 to control the media. However, the junta appeared to make a compromise with Announcement No 103 a few days later, allowing media groups to supervise members of their organisations.

The surprise retreat came in the wake of a meeting between the NCPO and media representatives in which the latter expressed their displeasure at the original order. What was surprising to some observers was that the media groups reacted too slowly to give a collective response to Announcement 97. Indeed, they had not met together to discuss the issue before the meeting with the NCPO.

In the opinion of many, the junta's "U-turn" showed its reluctance to engage in a head-on clash with the news media.

However, the real thinking behind the move became clearer when the NCPO issued another announcement, No 108. This edict instructed media groups to investigate the junta's allegation that the ASTV Manager weekly newsmagazine published untrue information with the goal of damaging the NCPO's credibility.

The order urged media groups to report the findings of their investigations to the NCPO chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

This was an efficient and prudent "battle plan" by military strategists that was poorly matched by the slow-moving media groups.

The question now is whether the media groups will come up with findings that deviate from those of the NCPO. Whatever happens, it seems that the junta backed off from its original order only to go back on the offensive with another higher-priority edict.

ASTV Manager, owned by outspoken media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, is expected to ignore any finding that goes against its interests. If that is the case, it may convince the public that media groups cannot control their unruly members.

This scenario would provide the junta with an ideal excuse to control the media through martial law. The latest order states that if ASTV Manager violates the rules again (by allegedly publishing untrue information), the NCPO will enforce martial law and take legal action against the magazine.

If the media groups comply with the NCPO order and their members agree with the junta's accusations, it means the NCPO has control over the media - the goal of its original order.

This is an awkward moment for |the media groups, as it puts them |on the back foot again even as they try to appear defiant. On one side |they make bullish public statements about challenging NCPO orders, but on the other hand they face a huge dilemma.

One strategy they may adopt is to delay establishment of the committee to investigate the NCPO's allegation against ASTV Manager. Whatever the finding will be, it is the NCPO that will gain and the media groups that will lose. And ASTV Manager may not be the last media target of the NCPO.

The junta's moves have been well planned.

An initial gambit was followed by a modicum of sacrifice but the NCPO has now obtained a highly advantageous position in its dealings with the media.


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