In Thailand, media activist testifies about ‘climate of fear’

Bangkok, Thailand, October 11, 2005—In her closing testimony today, media activist Supinya Klangnarong said a criminal defamation case brought against her by the telecommunications giant Shin Corp. has given rise to a “climate of fear” among journalists and activists in Thailand. But the presiding judge refused to include that portion of her testimony in the final transcript of the hearing, ruling that the comment was “irrelevant.”

Supinya also defended the critical opinions she first made in the Thai Post newspaper in July 2003 concerning the connections between the Shin Corp. and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai political party.

Her testimony came on the same day that Thaksin filed criminal and civil lawsuits against the Manager daily newspaper for critical comments it published from a revered Buddhist monk concerning the government. The Thai premier is pursuing 500 million baht (US$12.2 million) in the civil case.

“While the judge thought Supinya’s testimony was irrelevant, it’s clear that Prime Minister Thaksin and affiliated business interests are using the country’s legal system to intimidate citizens from exercising their constitutional right of free expression,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

The Shin Corp., which is majority owned by Thaksin’s family members, has challenged the accuracy of Supinya’s comments, which the company’s lawyers contend damaged its public image. Shin has also filed a civil lawsuit, in which it is pursuing the equivalent of 400 million baht (US$10 million) in monetary damages.

The criminal trial is scheduled to conclude on October 26, and a final verdict in the case is expected by late December. Civil proceedings are scheduled to start in March 2006. CPJ Asia consultant Shawn Crispin has monitored the criminal trial and testified as a defense witness.

Since the Shin Corp. filed its criminal complaint against Supinya in October 2003, politicians and their affiliated business interests have filed a string of criminal and civil defamation suits against Thai journalists. Many of the cases seek massive financial damages, including a 10 billion baht (US$240 million) civil case filed by a cabinet minister’s family business against the Thai-language newspaper Matichon.

This month, Thaksin a filed criminal complaint and a 500 million baht (US$12.2 million) civil suit against the Manager Group’s founder, Sondhi Limthongkul, journalist Sarocha Pornudomsak, and Thai Day Dot Com PCL for comments the two journalists made on Thai television alleging that the Prime Minister was disloyal to the country’s revered monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

“The growing number of criminal defamation cases in the Thai courts is damaging press freedom and eroding a constitutional principle,” Cooper added. “We call on Shin Corp. to drop these charges against Supinya Klangnarong and to halt this campaign of intimidation.”