Thai prime minister files defamation cases against four papers

New York, March 27, 2006 – The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s decision to file criminal defamation charges against four Thai newspapers related to their news coverage of recent rallies staged against his government.

Thaksin’s personal lawyer filed criminal complaints Thursday against the Manager Daily, Krungthep Tooragit, Post Today, and the Thai Post. The complaints noted that the four newspapers had published the speeches of antigovernment protestors who, among other things, accused Thaksin’s government of selling national assets to foreigners.

Criminal defamation charges in Thailand carry possible two-year jail terms and fines of 200,000 baht (about $5,000). Thaksin’s government and his family’s business interests have lodged a string of criminal and civil defamation complaints against the press over the past three years.

The prime minister’s Thai Rak Thai party recently threatened to file as many as 30 defamation cases against antigovernment leader and media personality Sondhi Limthongkul in connection with allegations made during Sondhi’s public speeches. At the government’s request, Thai police have recorded the speeches of antigovernment protestors and submitted them to Thai Rak Thai party headquarters, according to news reports.

“We call on Prime Minister Thaksin to stop using the law to criminalize criticism of his government,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “These outrageous cases undermine the press freedom guarantees enshrined in the country’s 1997 constitution and create a litigious atmosphere that chills the country’s vibrant media.”

Thailand is embroiled in a political stand-off between Thaksin’s government and antigovernment organizations calling for his resignation. Thaksin has called for elections on April 2.

After public criticism from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thaksin recently dropped six criminal and civil defamation suits against Sondhi. In the civil suits, Thaksin had requested 2 billion baht (about $50 million) in monetary damages.

On March 15 Thailand’s criminal court ruled in favor of media activist Supinya Klangnarong and journalists for the Thai Post in a criminal defamation case that was closely watched worldwide. The Shin Corp, the communications conglomerate Thaksin founded, filed the complaint over comments Supinya made to the Thai Post that hinted at a conflict of interest between Thaksin’s public office and his family’s private businesses.

The court ruled that public companies, like public figures, should be open to criticism when it serves the national interest. Shin was recently sold by the Shinawatra family to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings.

The criminal court this month also postponed hearings on a criminal defamation case filed by the state-run Airports Authority of Thailand and New Bangkok International Airport against the English language daily Bangkok Post related to a story the newspaper ran and later retracted about construction flaws at the new Bangkok airport. The paper’s editors have challenged the constitutionality of the lawsuit and appealed to a higher court.