Renewing a battle, Thai government lashes out at media owner

Bangkok, Thailand, January 27, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Thai government’s recent moves to disrupt the signal of the satellite-based television news station Asian Satellite TV (ASTV) and to block access to a popular news Web site. Both actions appeared to be aimed in part at veteran journalist and media owner Sondhi Limthongkul, who has been critical of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government.

The Prime Minister’s Office Public Relations Department (PRD) this week ordered the state-run Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) to block ASTV’s live broadcast of Sondhi’s political talk show, “Thailand Weekly,” from the southern towns of Trang and Hat Yai to viewers in Bangkok, Thai newspapers reported.

The PRD claimed that the newly launched ASTV did not have a proper broadcast license and did not have authorization for live broadcasts. Thailand’s television frequencies are owned and controlled by the government and military.

News reports said that the PRD also ordered the CAT to block the popular news Web site of the Manager Media Group,, asserting that the site’s content was causing “social chaos.” Manager Media Group is owned by Sondhi. The government later denied that it was seeking to shut down the Web site, and the site was accessible on Friday.

“The government’s move to block the Manager Group’s television broadcasts and news Web sites is out of step with the freedom of expression guarantees enshrined in the country’s constitution,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on the Thai government to immediately halt practices that undermine press freedom.”

Last September the state-run Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT) abruptly cancelled Sondhi’s “Thailand Weekly” talk show broadcast over Channel 9 after the journalist accused Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on the air of disloyalty to the monarchy.

Thaksin subsequently filed a string of criminal and civil defamation lawsuits against Sondhi, his co-host Sarocha Porn-udomsak, and Thai Dot Com Co, demanding damages totaling two billion baht (US$50 million) in the civil suits. Thaksin’s lawyers also won a temporary court injunction barring Manager Media Group’s Web site from posting critical commentary about the prime minister while the cases were in session.

Thaksin later dropped the lawsuits against Sondhi and other journalists. The reversal followed King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s December 4 nationally televised birthday address in which the monarch urged greater tolerance of government criticism.

Sondhi continued to broadcast his “Thailand Weekly” talk show over ASTV, and his live broadcasts from various public places around the country have drawn crowds of more than 50,000. The Manager Media Group also streams the popular program live over the Internet.