Assault intensifies against Thai online news media

Bangkok, March 6, 2009–On the same day that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told a meeting of news editors of his intention to restore Thailand’s press freedom reputation, police officials raided the offices and arrested the executive director of a popular online news site, Prachatai

Prachatai‘s executive director Chiranuch Premchaiporn was arrested when a group of five or six Crime Suppression Division police officials entered the Web site’s Bangkok offices on Ratchadapisek Road at around 3 p.m. today. Officers also took copies of the hard drives of some of the office’s computers. Chiranuch was later released on bail.

The director was charged under national security-related articles 14 and 15 of the 2007 Computer Crime Act for postings apparently critical of the Thai royal family made on one of the site’s boards, according to Prachatai. It is unclear if Chiranuch would also be charged under the country’s lese majeste law, which criminalizes any criticism of the royal family. Guilty convictions are punishable with a maximum of 15 years in prison.

“We call upon the relevant authorities to immediately cease and desist from harassing all online journalists and commentators like Chiranuch Premchaiporn,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Program Director. “Thailand has unleashed one of the most aggressive crackdowns on Internet freedom seen anywhere in Asia and we strongly urge them to reverse course.”

Prachatai has developed a reputation for independent reporting, particularly through its hard-hitting reports on the conflict between government forces and Muslim rebels in the country’s three southernmost provinces. The site was threatened with closure last year because of comments deemed harmful to the monarchy posted to one of the site’s online public forums.

A letter signed by a group of 50 international scholars and dignitaries addressed to Prime Minister Abhisit released at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on Thursday urged him to reform Thailand’s lese majeste law. The letter said the “frequent abuse of the lese majeste law against political opponents undermines democratic processes” and generates “heightened criticism of the monarchy and Thailand itself, both inside and outside the country.” On January 27, CPJ sent a letter to Abhisit expressing its similar concerns about Thailand’s deteriorating media climate.

Today, Abhisit admitted to editors that there were “problems” with the law’s enforcement and that he had already discussed the issue with the national police chief, according to news reports.

A senior Thai police official has filed three different lese majeste complaints against BBC Bangkok correspondent Jonathan Head. Thai academic Giles Ungpakorn fled Thailand for Britain last month due to his fears he would not receive a fair trial in the lese majeste charges filed against him.