Thai prime minister intensifies threats against television commentator

Bangkok, November 18, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed grave concern today about the Thai government’s escalating harassment of journalist and television commentator Sondhi Limthongkul. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra filed a defamation lawsuit against Sondhi on Thursday, the third such suit against the journalist, this one seeking 1 billion baht (US$25 million) in damages.

Thaksin’s lawyer also obtained an injunction prohibiting Sondhi’s Web site from publishing news critical of the prime minister while the case is pending. The lawsuit stems from critical comments about the prime minister’s conduct, including alleged assistance to a family business in acquiring the Thaicom satellite concession, the Bangkok Post reported.

Thai police have confiscated video copies of Sondhi’s popular television program from stores across the country, according to news reports. Meanwhile, journalists at Sondhi’s English-language daily newspaper Thai Day told CPJ that they were now wary of writing critical stories about the prime minister.

Despite the order, Sondhi hosted a talk show about the prime minister on the CCTV television station. Approximately 10,000 people gathered in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park to listen to the live broadcast, according to news reports.

Sondhi founded and runs the Manager Media Group, one of Thailand’s largest integrated media companies with interests in publishing, radio, and television. Thaksin has filed more than 2 billion baht (US$50 million) worth of criminal and civil complaints against Sondhi and his associated businesses since October. Hearings are scheduled to begin in February 2006.

“Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra may be using the courts, but his actions show an utter disregard for the legal guarantees of free expression that are enshrined in the constitution,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to stop his government’s campaign of intimidation against Sondhi Limthongkul and other critical Thai journalists.”

Sondhi’s television journalism has frequently touched on the delicate subject of alleged tensions between Thaksin’s government and the royal palace. On November 16, royal military guards considered loyal to the prime minister submitted a letter to Sondhi’s offices requesting that his media outlets stop commenting publicly on royal affairs. Sondhi remained defiant, insisting that his commentary was made in defense of the throne. Thailand enforces some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, whereby acts deemed offensive to the king are punishable with lengthy jail terms.

Thaksin’s government and its affiliated business interests have frequently resorted to criminal and civil defamation suits against journalists to curb criticism of their policies and activities. Plaintiffs have sought as much as 10 billion baht (US$240 million) in monetary damages.