In Thailand, criminal charges threaten community radio stations

Bangkok, November 9, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about the Thai government’s criminal prosecution of a community radio station operator. Hearings concluded today in a criminal case filed by the state-run Public Relations and Post and Telegraph departments against radio journalist Satien Chanthorn on charges of illegally possessing broadcast equipment and violating terms of a 1955 broadcasting act. A verdict in the case is expected by December, Satien said.

A former rice farmer, Satien established FM 106.75 MHz in Ang Thong province in July 2002. His critical coverage of the local government’s handling of flood relief budgets brought him into direct conflict with authorities. On October 30, 2002, police confiscated his broadcasting equipment and charged him with illegally possessing a radio transmitter and operating a radio station without a license. Local media sources say that many community stations operate without licenses, and they accused the government of targeting him in retaliation for his critical reporting.

Thailand’s 1997 constitution allowed for the establishment of community-based radio stations, a measure that aimed to break the government’s monopoly over the national radio frequencies and promote greater diversity of media ownership. Since then, more than 2,000 community-based radio stations have established operations across the country.

Satien told CPJ that he was charged under the draconian 1955 Radio Telecommunications Act, legislation that his lawyer argued was rendered obsolete by the 1997 constitution. Satien said he faces a possible fine of 200,000 baht (US$5,000) and five years in prison. “Even if I am fined 1 baht and 1 day in jail, it will set a precedent that I was wrong. If I’m guilty, how will all the others be able to continue operating?” Satien told CPJ.

“Community radio stations have emerged as an important alternative to the news and views presented by state-controlled electronic media,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “A ruling against Satien Chanthorn’s right to broadcast would send a disturbing signal to the thousands of other community radio operators in Thailand that they could be next.”

Thai government officials and police have recently shuttered several other community radio stations, claiming that they exceeded maximum wattage limits and that their signals interfered with the aeronautical radio equipment used by commercial airlines. The newly established National Broadcast Commission, a quasi-independent regulatory body, has said that regulating community radio stations is on the top of its agenda, signaling that new restrictions against grassroots radio broadcasters could be in the works.