Writer goes into exile over Thai lese majeste charges

New York, February 9, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns the increasing use of draconian lese majeste charges to harass journalists and commentators and stifle free expression in Thailand; at least one writer has gone into exile because of the charges.

Political writer and university professor Giles Ungpakorn fled Thailand for the United Kingdom over the weekend due to fears he would not receive a fair trial related to lese majeste charges filed against him, according to new reports. Lese majeste charges are a criminal offense in Thailand and carry a possible three- to-15 year prison term for guilty convictions. According to the U.K.’s Guardian, Ungpakorn has joint British and Thai nationality.

The complaint was lodged against Ungpakorn for an eight-paragraph passage in a book he authored that touched on the monarchy in a critique of the 2006 military coup which overthrew democracy. Ungpakorn has been a vocal critic of the military’s political role and has written several critical articles expressing those views for the British current affairs newsmagazine New Statesman and Asia Sentinel news Web site. Media activists at the Thai Netizen Network in Thailand say that two of his most recent posts for other sites, here and here, are blocked to users in the country.

One of his recent articles in the Asia Sentinel insinuated that the military had tacitly supported the siege of Bangkok’s international airport, which was closed down by an anti-government protest group for five days in late November/early December.

“That political writers now find it necessary to flee the country due to fears about their personal security is testament to the rapid deterioration in Thailand’s media environment,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior representative for Southeast Asia. “We call on the government to drop the charges against Giles Ungpakorn and all other writers facing harassment or worse under these outdated and extreme laws.”

Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was sentenced to three years in prison on lese majeste charges on January 19. BBC correspondent Jonathan Head currently faces three different charges of lese majeste for articles and public comments he made at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

Thailand’s Ministry of Information Communication and Technology closed down more than 2,300 Web sites last month for posting materials deemed offensive to the monarchy. The Justice Ministry has said it plans to seek court orders to shut down an additional 3,000 to 4,000 Web sites for the same reason.

On January 27, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Abhisit expressing its concerns about Thailand’s fast deteriorating media climate.