Attacks on the Press 2006: Thailand

A year of political turmoil climaxed in a military coup that accelerated the deterioration of Thailand’s press freedom climate. Royalist generals seized power on September 19 while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly. The coup was condemned abroad, but the new leadership was endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is widely revered by Thais. It was the country’s first coup in 15 years but its 18th since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Army commander Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratklin ordered tanks placed outside Thailand’s six main television stations, and national radio and television programming was interrupted. Broadcasters aired pictures of the monarchy while the coup was under way. Soldiers entered newsrooms to bar the broadcast of news footage of Thaksin. During the coup and its immediate aftermath, the military blacked out international broadcasters CNN and BBC whenever they aired news reports on Thaksin.

Thai Television Channel 9, which is managed by the prime minister’s office, aired part of a statement by Thaksin, who attempted to declare a state of emergency and order the removal of Gen. Sonthi. The statement was cut off midway, and Thaksin’s loyalists in the armed forces were quickly neutralized. The station’s managing director, Mingkwan Sangsuwan, was taken into army custody for questioning and later removed from his position.

The coup leaders, who after a number of name changes called themselves the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), and ultimately the Council for National Security, promptly scrapped the 1997 constitution, which had broadly protected press freedom. It was replaced with an interim charter that omitted the media provisions outlined in the old constitution. On September 21, the CDR called a meeting with senior media representatives, ordering all radio stations to cancel phone-in news programs and instructing television broadcasters to stop displaying text messages sent in by viewers.

By military decree, the junta closed about 400 community radio stations in Thaksin’s political strongholds in the north and northeast of the country. The move brought into question the legality of more than 2,000 other community radio stations operating across the country–not just those loyal to Thaksin. Immediately after the coup, the CDR empowered the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology to censor any news that undermined the junta’s authority, according to local media reports. There were no reported cases of direct censorship of the print media, but the ministry ordered the closure of the activist-run 19sep Web site, which had posted comments critical of the coup.

On September 23, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Thaweep Netniyan threatened to take action against unnamed foreign correspondents and news organizations that allegedly insulted the monarchy during their coverage of the coup and its aftermath. He ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to follow up on the charges, which could carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison. No action was taken on the threat, but many foreign correspondents who spoke with CPJ expressed concerns that they might encounter difficulty extending their work visas and press cards. The move was seen as an indicator of the junta’s hostility toward the media.

In an October 5 letter to CDR-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander and close adviser to the palace, CPJ protested the military crackdown on the media and called on his government to restore the press freedom provisions of the old constitution. A few weeks after the coup, print media, including the English-language daily The Nation and the Thai-language Matichon, began to test the new limits by running critical news and commentaries about the coup leaders and the civilian-led interim administration they had appointed.

At a November 7 function sponsored by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Surayud promised to take a more liberal approach toward the media than the previous government, and he referred to Thaksin’s attempt in 2002 to expel two foreign journalists with the Far Eastern Economic Review newsmagazine. “We may not always agree with how you report what you see, but any disagreement with this interim government will be addressed by transparent, rational debate, not emotion, and certainly not the stick,” he said.

The media had come under intense government harassment during Thaksin’s five years in power. As street protests against his government intensified during the year, Thaksin responded by filing a string of criminal and financially crippling civil lawsuits against critical news publications. Criminal defamation charges in Thailand carry possible two-year jail terms and fines of 200,000 baht (US$5,500); there is no limit on damages in civil suits.

In March, Thaksin’s lawyer filed criminal complaints against the Thai-language dailies Manager Daily, Krungthep Tooragit, Post Today, and Thai Post over their coverage of antigovernment rallies. The complaints centered on the publication of speeches by protesters who accused the government of corruption and illegally selling national assets to foreigners. In June, Thaksin targeted three additional Thai-language dailies–Matichon, Khao Sod, and the Daily News–for publishing opposition comments that accused him of unjustly clinging to power after democratic elections were annulled. In the three civil defamation suits, Thaksin sought the combined equivalent of US$21 million in damages.

Media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul, a founder of the Manager Media Group, a conglomerate of print, radio, and broadcast media, led many of the antigovernment rallies. In March, when the Thai-language daily Kom Chad Luek published remarks Sondhi made in an apparent critical reference to the monarchy, 3,000 protesters staged noisy demonstrations in front of the publication’s offices and physically harassed its reporters. More than 200 police were summoned to maintain order, but the protesters refused to leave the premises until Kom Chad Luek executives agreed to fire the editor and suspend publication for five days.

By June, Sondhi told CPJ, government officials, police, and private individuals had filed more than 50 criminal lawsuits against him, involving both criminal defamation and violations of lèse-majesté laws, for comments he made and his media reported during antigovernment rallies. However, the status of the various charges Thaksin filed against the media was uncertain, given his retreat into exile following the coup.

Despite these setbacks, journalists did score one legal victory during the year. On March 15, media activist Supinya Klangnarong and four journalists from the Thai Post were acquitted of criminal defamation charges brought by telecommunications giant Shin Corp. The court ruled that public companies that hold government concessions, like public figures, should be open to criticism in the public interest. Shin, which had been owned by Thaksin family members, had filed a criminal complaint against Supinya and the Thai Post journalists in October 2003. The defendants had faced possible two-year jail terms and fines of 200,000 baht (US$5,500). The company later filed a related civil suit seeking 400 million baht (US$10.9 million) in damages.