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Thai media call on junta to ease restrictions

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai media organizations called on the military government on Monday to ease restrictions after the junta said it would shut down news outlets putting out what it considers critical coverage.

The military seized power in a May 22 coup and has been intolerant of criticism of a takeover it said was necessary to restore stability after six months of sometimes violent protests against an elected government.

The military said in an order late last week it could shut down any media that disseminates information that "could harm national security" or criticizes the work of the ruling military council.

Media executives met senior military officials on Monday to get clarification on the order.

"There's a positive signal. There might be changes to the announcement especially the section that gives authorities the power to close media," Thai Journalists Association chairman Pradit Ruangdit told reporters after the meeting.

"We'll have to wait and see if the military acts on its promise."

The Friday order compounded difficult conditions for media since the military overthrew the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

As well as briefly detaining Yingluck and hundreds of other politicians and activists, the military shut down about 3,000 independent radio stations and 14 television channels. It has allowed some to reopen on condition they do not broadcast what it deems inflammatory material.

Junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised to install a government by September and hold elections by late 2015. The military has also set about tackling various rackets from illegal taxi to drugs.

Thai journalists are no strangers to censorship. The country has some of the toughest laws against lese-majeste, or insulting the monarchy, in the world. Insulting the king or top members of the royal family is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Thailand's media frequently ranks near the bottom of press freedom indexes and there is no sign of an imminent improvement.

"We are approaching two months after the coup but there is no relaxing of press restrictions. In reality it is the opposite," Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

"It is clear that the military has very thin skin and even a very mild form of dissent is not tolerated. Clearly we are not heading towards democracy but a mirror-image of what happens in military barracks - top-down rule."

(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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