Attacks on the Press in 2008: Thailand

A coalition government led by the People Power Party crumbled in December in the face of intense months-long street protests. As demonstrations reached a crescendo in late November, violence spread across the capital, Bangkok, and protesters laid siege to domestic and international airports. Media outlets were targeted by both pro- and antigovernment protesters.

The Constitutional Court stepped into the crisis on December 2, dissolving the ruling party and two of its coalition partners, and banning 33 of their executive members from politics for five years. The decision forced the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra, and led the antigovernment People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to end its street demonstrations. Yet political unrest continued to bubble in late year even after the English-born, Oxford-educated opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was sworn in as prime minister.

Serious attacks against the press were reported during the unrest. On November 24 and 28, grenades struck the Bangkok offices of the antigovernment satellite television station, ASTV. No group took responsibility for the attacks, which did not result in any injuries or serious damage. ASTV, owned by PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul, had broadcast antigovernment rallies live and around-the-clock. On November 25, protesters with the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship surrounded the Chiang Mai offices of Vihok Radio operator Therdsak Jiemkitwattana. The group dragged the station operator’s father, Setha Jiemkitwattana, from a car, beat him, and shot him dead.

On November 26, PAD protesters fired shots and threw grenades at pro-government Taxi Radio. Two people were injured. Two days later, PAD supporters attacked a photographer with the Thai-language newspaper Thai Rath as he was photographing violence at Don Mueang Domestic Airport, one of those taken over by demonstrators. On November 30, a Truevisions television news vehicle came under fire from guards apparently sympathetic to PAD at Don Mueang airport. No one was injured in the attack, which PAD co-leader Amorn Amornratananont called a misunderstanding. On the same day, however, PAD spokeswoman Anchalee Paireerak threatened to have demonstrators surround the offices of Channel 3 television in retaliation for perceived bias, according to the newspaper Matichon.

Attacks on the media began as the unrest swelled in August. Armed with crude weapons and wearing masks, PAD protesters seized the state-run television station National Broadcasting of Thailand (NBT), temporarily forcing it off the air on August 26. The PAD also raided four government ministries and occupied Government House, the seat of government. The protesters attempted to force NBT’s managers to air news from ASTV by taking staff members hostage and cutting the station’s electricity. The Thai Journalist Association and the Thai Broadcasting Journalist Association released a statement condemning the takeover, saying it “threatened the rights and freedom of media.”

The clashes underscored how the news media had become part of the grinding conflict that pitted supporters and detractors of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and forced into exile.

Somchai’s predecessor, fellow Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej, frequently accused reporters of bias in their coverage of his coalition government. On May 4, during one of his regular talk show broadcasts on NBT, Samak said he would consider closing publishing houses and jailing critical columnists, the English-language daily Bangkok Post reported.

Earlier in the year, Samak’s office had established a task force to monitor news balance on all state- and military-owned broadcast media, including the country’s six main television stations and all of its estimated 525 radio frequencies. In February, popular commentator and reporter Chirmsak Pinthong’s FM 105 news program, “Chirmsak’s Viewpoints,” was canceled for undisclosed reasons. Chirmsak claimed Prime Minister’s Office Minister Jakrapob Penkair ordered the producer to halt production because the show aired criticism of comments Samak made in a CNN interview. Jakrapob responded that censorship was “not the government’s policy,” according to local news reports.

Those comments rang hollow on June 13 when Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung ordered local cable television operators to stop carrying ASTV or face possible imprisonment. The minister’s order came soon after ASTV began live, around-the-clock broadcasts of PAD protests in Bangkok, during which fiery orators heaped scorn on the government and individual ministers. Two days later, unidentified assailants on a motorcycle hurled two explosive devices into the Bangkok offices of the Manager Media Group, which through holding companies owned ASTV. The attackers were not apprehended.

ASTV’s critical live broadcasts cut a sharp contrast to the news disseminated on state-run channels, which have traditionally monopolized television news and provided fawning coverage of the incumbent administration. ASTV Managing Editor Chadaporn Lin said in a September interview with the Rome-based Inter Press Service that the station’s audience had doubled since 2006, from 10 million to an estimated 20 million viewers. At the same time, the PAD came under criticism for intimidating journalists who reported critically on its protest movement.

A reporter from pro-government TV Channel 13 was assaulted by PAD protesters and forced to flee its Government House protests in a taxi on August 26. The following day, both journalist associations called on PAD demonstrators to stop interfering with the operation of the broadcasting vehicles of different state-owned television stations, some of which had been vandalized. In mid-September, reporters balked when the PAD required reporters covering their news conferences to get on stage in front of thousands of protesters when posing questions to the movement’s co-leaders. Reporters stationed at the protest site told CPJ they feared reprisals if they asked questions critical of the protest group.

On September 2, after clashes between pro- and antigovernment groups in Bangkok left one protester dead and dozens injured, Samak declared a state of emergency, a move that gave the military censorship power over the media.

Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda was quoted in the local press as saying that both ASTV and NBT had aggravated the political situation through one-sided reporting and that the military planned to monitor the situation. The military did not overtly use its censorship powers, and the state of emergency was lifted later that month. Anupong by and large declined to implement Samak’s state of emergency, raising suspicions that the military was covertly backing the PAD.

PAD protesters clashed with police on the morning of October 7, the day after the group laid siege to parliament in a bid to prevent the newly named Somchai from legally establishing his government. The following day, nearly all of the country’s daily newspapers carried graphic images of protesters who had been injured in the fighting, including several who had lost limbs. Police said they had fired only tear gas canisters, but the print media’s coverage cast doubts on those claims.

Thai authorities continued to crack down on any perceived slight to the royal family, particularly to 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thailand maintains some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, which set penalties of three to 15 years in prison for offending the royal family. Both sides of Thailand’s political conflict profess loyalty to the crown. BBC correspondent Jonathan Head was charged under the law for his political reporting and public speaking engagements. Police Lt. Col. Wattanasak Mungkandee filed three separate lese majeste complaints against Head, alleging that the journalist’s comments and reporting criticized the monarchy. One complaint cited 11 articles from the BBC’s Web site, some of which Head did not write.

In a statement, the BBC called the charges “completely unfounded.” As of late year, police were still questioning witnesses about the charges, according to Head. He told CPJ that an official attached to the prime minister’s office told him that “highly placed military officials” wanted him “run out of town” for writings that touched on the monarchy.

Thai police also launched investigations into Web sites that included content authorities considered potentially offensive to the monarchy. Among those probed was Hi-thaksin, launched in support of former premier Thaksin; its operator voluntarily closed it down, Thai media reported. In early September, a Thai court issued an order to close down 400 Web sites, 344 of which had content considered offensive to the monarchy, according to news reports. In October, Communications Minister Mun Patanotai announced multimillion-dollar plans to establish an Internet firewall to block access to Web sites deemed insulting to the royal family.

Journalists also came under assault in the provinces, including in the country’s violence-plagued southernmost provinces, where Muslim insurgents battled government forces for a fourth consecutive year. Chalee Boonsawat, a reporter with the country’s largest Thai-language daily, Thai Rath, was killed on August 21 while covering an explosion in the southern border town of Sungai Kolok. Phadung Wannalak, a reporter with TV Channel 9, also known as Modern Nine TV, was also seriously injured in a second explosion timed to detonate after a crowd had gathered, a common tactic in the conflict.

In the southern province of Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Athiwat Chaiyanurat, a reporter with the Thai-language daily newspaper Matichon and a stringer for TV Channel 7, was shot to death in his home on August 1. The Thai Journalist Association said that Athiwat had received death threats before the attack and that his murder was likely related to his journalism. The press group noted that he had reported on local corruption and a police manhunt for an alleged assassin who had arrived in the area in the run-up to a local election.

Fellow Matichon journalist Jaruek Rangcharoen was fatally shot on September 27 in Suphanburi province, according to the group. Matichon editor Kaweesak Bhutton said the newspaper believed the killing was related to Jaruek’s reporting on local government corruption.

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