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Thai authorities seek to censor coverage of student protests

Thailand's embattled prime minister said Monday that there were no plans to extend a state of emergency outside the capital, even as student-led protests calling for him to leave office spread around the country. Police, however, indicated they were working to censor coverage of the demonstrations.

Raids of media, bid to restrict Telegram app take place as protesters gather again on Monday evening

A pro-democracy protester uses a loudspeaker to address the crowd and give the three-finger salute of resistance during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok on Monday evening. (Mladen Antonovi/AFP/Getty Images)

Thai authorities worked Monday to stem a growing tide of protests calling for the prime minister to resign by threatening to censor news coverage, raiding a publishing house and attempting to block the Telegram messaging app used by demonstrators.

The efforts by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government to drain the student-led protests of support and the ability to organize comes as demonstrations have grown in the capital and spread around the country, despite an emergency decree that bans public gatherings of more than four people in Bangkok, outlaws news coverage said to affect national security and gives authorities broad power to detain people.

Thousands of mostly young protesters massed in northern Bangkok on Monday evening, as they have in various locations in the capital over the past six days, to push their demands, including a controversial call for reform of the monarchy. As night fell, they held their cellphones up, lighting the crowd.

The protesters charge that Prayuth, who as army commander led a 2014 coup that toppled an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year's general election because laws had been changed to favour a pro-military party. The protesters say a constitution written under military rule and passed in a referendum in which campaigning against it was illegal is undemocratic.

The protest movement has also adopted reform of the monarchy as a demand. The protesters want it to act within the checks and balances of democracy.

A pro-democracy protester holds a sign during an anti-government rally on the outskirts of Bangkok on Monday. (Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

The monarchy has long been considered sacrosanct in Thailand, and is protected by a law that makes defaming senior royals punishable by a prison term of three to 15 years. The issue has angered Thailand's conservative establishment, especially the army, which considers protecting the monarchy to be one of its main duties.

Authorities slam 'distorted information'

With protesters gathering again on Monday evening, a top official with the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission confirmed reports that the agency had been ordered to block access to the messaging app Telegram.

Suthisak Tantayothin said it was talking with internet service providers about doing so, but so far the encrypted messaging app favoured by many demonstrators around the world was still available in the country.

Police also searched the office of a publishing house that handles books by Thai and foreign scholars with sometimes controversial perspectives. Same Sky publishing house said police took away copies of three titles that had been sold at a recent book fair in a bundle it called Monarchy Studies, and asked their publisher to come for questioning at their station.

Deputy police spokesman Kissana Phataracharoen confirmed that police are forwarding a request to the appropriate agencies to take action against information providers that give what he called "distorted information" that can cause unrest and confusion in society.

Police stand guard outside the Nonthaburi police station during Monday night's anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters on the ouskirts of Bangkok. (Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

Under existing laws, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission and the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society are empowered to ban broadcasts and block internet content. Police themselves can also do so under the emergency decree, which went into effect Oct. 15, a day after protesters heckled a royal motorcade in once unthinkable scenes in a country where the monarchy is protected by strict laws and treated with reverence.

Kissana spoke after a leaked copy of the censorship request, officially termed an order, circulated on social media. The order calls for blocking access to the online sites of Voice TV, The Reporters, The Standard, Prachatai, and Free Youth, and removing their existing content. It also proposes a ban on Voice TV's over-the-air digital broadcasts.

All the outlets have been broadcasting live coverage of the protests. Voice TV and Prachatai are openly sympathetic to the protest movement, and Free Youth is a student protest organization. As of Monday, none had been blocked. At least one local cable TV provider, however, has been censoring international news broadcasts during their segments on the Thai protests.

Media group expresses concerns

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand said it was "deeply concerned" by the censorship threat, adding that it "makes the government appear heavy-handed and unresponsive to criticism, and could stir up even more public anger."

"Bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threat of bans, suspensions, censorship or prosecution hanging over them," the club said in a statement.

Pro-democracy protesters shelter from the rain by using ponchos and umbrellas during an anti-government rally at Victory Monument in Bangkok on Sunday. (Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite the spread of protests outside the capital, Prayuth, the prime minister, told reporters the state of emergency will remain only in Bangkok for now.

In addition the emergency decree making protests illegal, authorities have also tried in vain to keep people from gathering by selectively shutting down stations on Bangkok's mass transit lines. It has also warned that it will take legal action against those who promote the protests on social media, including by taking photographs there or checking into them on social media apps.

Despite that, protest-related hashtags remain the most used on Twitter.

Prayuth said Monday that the government is open to an extraordinary session of parliament to seek a solution to the current situation. It was not clear when that might be held.

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