BBC reporter charged with insulting the king

New York, December 24, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the ongoing legal harassment of BBC correspondent Jonathan Head. Police Lt. Col. Wattanasak Mungkandee filed a third criminal complaint this year against Head on December 23, alleging he had insulted the Thai monarchy in his reporting. 

The latest charges are related to a December 3 article in which Head speculated that the royal palace and figures close to the palace may have provided tacit backing to anti-government protest group the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which laid siege to Bangkok’s main international and domestic airports from November 26 to December 3.

Thai law allows any citizen to bring complaints against anyone they believe has insulted the country’s monarchy. Wattanasak has brought all three complaints against Head in his personal capacity rather than as a senior ranking police official, according to Head. Violations of lese majeste laws are a criminal offense in Thailand, punishable by three to 15 years imprisonment.

“It is time for prosecutors and investigators in Thailand to immediately drop these outrageous and punitive charges against our colleague Jonathan Head,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Head’s reporting has raised important questions about Thailand’s deteriorating political situation and he should be allowed to report without fear of official reprisals.”

Head told CPJ that investigating police officials had requested a DVD recording of a Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) event on December 9 titled “The State of Politics and the Way Forward for Thailand” at which members of a pro-government group made reference to Head’s reporting. The FCCT announced today that it was suspending sales of that particular event’s recording. In an e-mail statement, the FCCT’s executive board said that “DVD recordings of Club events had been misused by certain individuals with their own agendas, in a way that compromises the free speech values the media community and the FCCT stand for.”

Local and foreign journalists have been under attack this year as a political crisis led to three changes of government in as many months. Head, a well-respected figure in Thai journalism has specifically been targeted. The first complaint against Head was filed on April 9, and was related to comments the reporter made in December 2007 while moderating another event at the FCCT titled “Coup, Capital, and Crown.” The discussion touched on the monarchy’s role in Thai society in light of the 2006 military coup. The second complaint against Head, filed on May 30, 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 obtained by CPJ.

The May 30 complaint against Head cited 11 different articles from the BBC’s Web site, several of which he did not author. Thai authorities have in recent months cracked down on hundreds of Web sites for posting materials considered offensive to the monarchy. Both the complaints are still pending.