Thailand: Guilty verdict against broadcaster threatens community radio

New York, February 8, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the criminal conviction and sentencing on Tuesday of community radio operator Satien Chanthorn on charges of violating the terms of a 1955 broadcasting act by illegally possessing broadcast equipment and operating a radio station without permission. The decision by an Ang Thong provincial court to hand Satien a suspended four-month sentence and fine of 40,000 baht (US$1000) is “a blow to community radio” in Thailand, said CPJ.

A former rice farmer, Satien established FM 106.75 MHz in Ang Thong province in July 2002. Satien’s coverage of the local government’s handling of flood relief budgets brought him into direct conflict with authorities. Police confiscated his broadcasting equipment and charged him with illegally possessing a radio transmitter and operating a radio station without a license. Local journalists told CPJ that many community stations operate without licenses and that Satien was targeted because of his critical broadcasts.

Thailand’s 1997 constitution allows for the establishment of community-based radio stations, a measure aimed at breaking the government’s monopoly over national radio frequencies and promoting greater diversity of media ownership. Since then, thousands of low-frequency radio stations have established operations across the country.

Satien’s lawyer argued that the constitution rendered the 1955 broadcasting law obsolete. But the court said the old law stands because more recent rules to allocate broadcasting licenses through an independent regulatory body have not been enforced. Satien plans to appeal the decision, according to local journalists and news reports.

“Satien Chanthorn should never have been criminally charged for broadcasting news,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “This verdict is a blow to community radio operators whose news broadcasts have presented an important alternative to Thailand’s state-dominated electronic media.”

Media advocates have called on the government to implement a transparent policy for the establishment of independent community radio stations. In August 2005, police raided and shut down FM 92.25, a Bangkok community radio station known for its critical reporting on the prime minister, and threatened to arrest its journalists if they continued to broadcast news.