Media mogul receives two-year jail sentence for defamation

New York, March 30, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the two year prison term on criminal defamation charges handed down to firebrand and Manager Media Group founder Sondhi Limthongkul, who is appealing the sentence and remains free on bail.

A Bangkok criminal court on Thursday sentenced Sondhi in relation to comments he made on November 25, 2005 on his popular Muang Thai Rai Supda television talk show which accused former Deputy Transport Minister Phumtham Wechayachai of disloyalty to the monarch. During that particular broadcast he also linked Phumtham to the anti-royal Web site, which is hosted in Sweden and currently blocked in Thailand, according to CPJ research.

The court ruled that Sondhi could not substantiate his accusations against Phumtham and ordered his company to pay a fine of 200,000 baht (US$6,000) and to destroy all VCD and DVD copies of the show. Sondhi was released on 200,000 baht bail and told local media that he planned to appeal the verdict. The court also dropped the same charges against eight other Manager Media Group-related defendants in the case.

“The prison term handed down to Sondhi Limthongkul shows the pressing need for Thailand to abolish criminal defamation statutes and to revise its criminal code to better protect press freedom,” said CPJ Executive Editor Joel Simon.

The role of the king became an issue in last year’s standoff between an anti-government protest group led by Sondhi and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted on September 19 in a bloodless military coup. Thailand imposes possible jail terms of up to 20 years for offenses towards the crown.

Sondhi’s talk shows, highly critical of the government, that are broadcast over his ASTV satellite television station, were wildly popular in the run-up to last September’s military coup. In response, Thaksin and his political associates filed a string of over 50 defamation suits against Sondhi, including one civil suit in which the former premier demanded over US$12.5 million in monetary damages.

Sondhi told CPJ before yesterday’s verdict that the ruling military junta last month cancelled a television news program he produced for state-run Channel 11 after he criticized the interim government’s financial and economic policies on air.