TV talk show hosts get two-year jail sentences for defamation

New York, April 13, 2007—The prison terms handed down to two Bangkok talk show hosts emphasizes the need to decriminalize defamation, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Bangkok’s Southern Criminal Court made the ruling on Thursday in relation to allegations television political commentators Samak Sundaravej and Dusit Siriwan made during their talk shows on state-run Channels 5 and 9. They alleged that Deputy Bangkok Governor Samart Ratchapolasit had accepted bribes from a construction contractor. The commentators plan to appeal the verdict and each remains free on 200,000 baht (US$6,240) bail.

The court ruled that Samak and Dusit could not substantiate the allegations and handed down a six-month prison sentence for each of the four separate times the commentators made the corruption allegation on air. The court also required they pay to publish an apology in a major Thai newspaper for three consecutive days. Samart is demanding 100 million baht (US$3,118,000) in a follow-up civil suit.

“The prison sentences given to Samak Sundaravej and Dusit Siriwan underscore the pressing need for Thailand to repeal its criminal statues that allow for imprisonment on defamation charges,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Such decisions will lead to more self-censorship among journalists.”

The verdict follows last month’s sentencing of Manger Media Group founder and political commentator Sondhi Limthongkul to two years in prison on criminal defamation charges for comments he made accusing a former politician of disloyalty to the crown.   Samak, a former Bangkok governor, and Dusit, previously an appointed senator, hosted the popular “This Morning in Thailand” television talk show on Channel 5, which is majority owned by the Thai army. The two commentators frequently aired news and analysis that favored former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before he was ousted in a military coup on September 19, 2006.

In February 2006, Samak and Dusit agreed to cease all of their radio and television broadcasts after they criticized Privy Council Chairman and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda on air. Prem is King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s closest personal advisor and is widely seen as one of the masterminds behind last year’s coup.