January 27, 2008
His Excellency Abhisit Vejjajiva
Office of the Prime Minister
Royal Government of Thailand
Via facsimile: 011-662-629-8213
Dear Prime Minister Abhisit,
The Committee to Protect Journalists congratulates you on your recent appointment as prime minister of a new coalition government. We are writing to you now to express our grave concern about Thailand's fast-deteriorating media climate and to call upon you to decisively reaffirm your country's commitment to a free press and open Internet.
We are especially alarmed by the increasing use of lese majeste charges, which restrict public criticism of the royal family, to intimidate journalists and censor the Internet. Information Communication and Technology Minister Ranongruk Suwanchawee issued a press release on January 5 stating that her ministry had blocked more than 2,300 Web sites and was preparing to request court approval to shut down an additional 400 sites for materials deemed insulting to the Thai monarchy.
Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga has said his main priority is to protect the monarchy. Earlier this month, he told Reuters he planned to push for legal changes to extend the current maximum penalty for lese majeste convictions from 15 to 25 years in prison. The minister has also called for a blanket ban on reporting lese majeste cases in the media and told Reuters, "In Thailand, your freedom of speech might have to be compromised for the sake of national security."
We note that you downplayed these worrying developments during your January 15 presentation to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and assured the assembled journalists that your government has "respect for freedom of expression," as outlined broadly in your country's constitution. Judging by recent actions, however, we fear that your government is giving greater emphasis to the more draconian measures in the controversial 2007 Computer Crime Act, which gives authorities sweeping powers to censor the Internet for ill-defined reasons of national security which might comprise lese majeste.
We point in particular to the three lese majeste charges now pending against BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, one of which was lodged by a senior police official during your tenure. He told CPJ he has concerns about his safety because of the charges.
Another lese majeste charge was recently filed against commentator Giles Ungpakorn, who was one of the most strident critics of the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra's democratically elected government. And Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was given a three-year prison sentence on lese majeste related charges on January 19 over a short passage in a book that sold fewer than 10 copies worldwide since it was published in 2005. Asia Books, which distributes the British magazine The Economist in Thailand, kept the January 24 issue from the shelves because of an article on that conviction, according to The Associated Press.
Your new government has stated its commitment to overcome political divisions, which in recent years have wrought so much instability and affected Thailand's international image and standing. But the increasing use of lese majeste laws against journalists and commentators threatens to undermine that commitment and raises disturbing questions about your administration's commitment to democratic principles and ideals.
CPJ is fully aware of the monarchy's role in Thai society and we understand the mounting national anxiety associated with King Bhumibol Adulyadej's increasingly frail health. That said, we believe the time is ripe to reform Thailand's lese majeste laws--currently the most severe in the world--in a way that both promotes freedom of expression and bans individuals, politicians, and officials from abusing the law for their own ends.
As you know, King Bhumibol said during his birthday address in 2005 that he was not above criticism. The monarch has also consistently issued royal pardons to critics and others who have been convicted on lese majeste charges, indicating to many observers that even the royal household frowns on the law's extreme and frequent use.
As an independent organization committed to upholding press freedom worldwide, CPJ firmly believes that your government has a unique opportunity to re-establish Thailand's proud, but recently diminished, tradition of press freedom. And we believe an appropriate place to start would be the reform of your country's lese majeste laws, restricting their use to royal family members. Thank you for your attention and we eagerly await your reply.