BBC reporter faces legal harassment in Thailand

New York, June 6, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the legal harassment of BBC correspondent Jonathan Head in Thailand. A high-ranking police official, Lt. Col. Wattanasak Mungkandee, has filed two separate criminal complaints alleging that the journalist insulted the monarchy—charges that Head and the BBC have called unfounded.

Thai law allows any citizen to bring complaints against anyone they believe has insulted the country’s monarchy. Mungkandee reportedly brought the complaints in a personal capacity. Violations of lese majeste laws are a criminal offense punishable by three to 15 years imprisonment.

The first complaint was filed on April 9, and was related to comments Head made in December while moderating an event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Titled “Coup, Capital and Crown,” the discussion touched on the monarchy’s role in Thai society in light of the 2006 military coup. No charges have been filed against the local and international academics on the panel.

The second complaint against Head was filed on May 30 and included charges that his reporting over a two-year period had “intended to criticize the monarchy several times” and that “his writings have damaged and insulted the reputation of the monarchy”, according to an English language translation of the charges, which were reviewed by CPJ.

The May 30 complaint against Head cited 11 articles from the BBC’s Web site, many of which he did not write. In a statement issued Monday, the BBC called the charges “completely unfounded” and expressed concern about the potential for angry public reaction to the charges. Head denied that any of his reporting or comments had criticized the monarchy.

“We call upon Thai authorities to dismiss these charges against BBCcorrespondent Jonathan Head,” said CPJ Asia Program Director Bob Dietz . “King Bhumibol Adulyadej said himself during a nationally televised address in 2005 that the monarchy is not above criticism. Those prosecuting Head should accept that guidance and throw out this and all future lese majeste cases.”

The charges against Head come at a politically tense period. The prime minister’s office minister, Jakrapob Penkair, resigned last week because of police accusations that his statements during another event at the club in August had insulted the monarchy. He had contended that the country’s institution of royalty perpetuates a feudal system.

Thai police have also started investigating more than 20 Web sites with content that could be considered offensive to the monarchy. The reports say the investigations have been going on since May 19. Among those under investigation, the Hi-thaksin site, which was launched in support of former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra after he was ousted in a 2006 military coup, was voluntarily closed down by its operator, Thai media reports said.