Thailand: Thaksin brings criminal libel charges against newspaper

New York, June 2, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a decision by caretaker prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party to file criminal defamation charges against the newspaper Manager Daily, its editor, a columnist, and two senior executives.

The charges filed on Tuesday relate to articles which alleged that Thaksin and senior Thai Rak Thai party officials had met secretly in Finland to discuss replacing Thailand’s constitutional monarchy with a presidential system. Thailand’s royal family is highly revered. The country has some of the world’s strictest laws against affronting the dignity of the sovereign, an offense known as lese majeste. Penalties include 15-year prison terms.

Thaksin’s chief adviser, Pansak Vinyaratn, called the claims “black propaganda.” According to Thai media reports, Thaksin told cabinet members that his opponents had fabricated the declaration to undermine his leadership and prevent him from resuming work.

Bangkok’s criminal court will hear the case August 7. Criminal defamation charges carry possible two-year jail terms and fines of 200,000 baht (US$5,000). It is unclear whether the complaint includes lese majeste charges.

“We call on Prime Minister Thaksin and his party to stop using criminal defamation laws to muzzle and intimidate journalists,” says Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “The Prime Minister has a history of peppering the press with lawsuits whenever he reads something he dislikes. He would do better to uphold the press freedom guarantees in Thailand’s 1997 constitution.”

Last year, Thaksin filed a string of criminal and civil defamation cases against the Manager Media Group’s owner Sondhi Limthongkul, an outspoken critic of the Thaksin government. Thaksin dropped the charges after King Bhumibol Adulyadej indicated his displeasure during his annual birthday speech on December 4, 2005.

Sondhi told CPJ that government officials, police, and private individuals have filed more than 50 criminal lawsuits against him, involving both criminal defamation and violations of lese majeste laws for comments he allegedly made during recent anti-government rallies.