Despite a severe, potentially destabilizing economic crisis and efforts by some in government to rein in the press, Thailand maintained an official commitment to free expression, even deepening constitutional protections for the media. The new Thai constitution signed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October contains the most sweeping free press provisions in Asia. The new charter, which has been praised by civil libertarians and human rights advocates worldwide, makes it unconstitutional for the government to censor, ban, license, or restrict print or broadcast media, except by specific legislation in times of crisis. "They cannot ban media, there will be no press licensing," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, the editor of Bangkok's Nation newspaper. "The constitution is a very positive development."

In June, Thai media were outraged when the government of then-Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh responded to growing press criticism of the government's economic policies by attempting to track and intimidate the press with an official media monitoring center operated by the Interior Ministry. As the economic crisis worsened in August, and Thailand's once-vibrant economy was shattered, Chavalit lashed out at his critics in the private media and called on government broadcast outlets to put a positive spin on economic news, again generating protests from Thai journalists.

Neither the monitoring center, nor official bluster muted the press; instead, newspapers responded with banner headlines calling on Chavalit to step down. On October 21, the beleaguered prime minister, who had been in office just over a year, reacted to a wave of demonstrations by calling on the military to impose a state of emergency that would have included harsh media censorship and a strict curfew. Reversing a past tradition of often-disastrous armed intervention in Thai affairs, the military refused to go along with the draconian measures. On November 6, Chavalit resigned.

A new prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, leader of the Democratic Party, took office on November 9 with the backing of an eight-party coalition. Thai journalists and the business community praised the appointment of Chuan, who brings a clean reputation to the job, as a sign that the country will attempt to restore its economic luster through constitutional means and sound management.

With the new constitution in place and civilian government assured, the greatest peril to the press, according to some analysts, is economic. The Nation's Chongkittavorn, said, "The government is not a threat. The threat is the economy, and we don't know how bad it will get." He noted that at least 2,000 journalists had lost their jobs through layoffs since the crisis began and there was no end in sight.

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