Thai media owner shot; emergency still in effect

New York, April 17, 2009–Amid Thailand’s continuing political chaos, the Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns the assassination attempt against media owner, television commentator, and political activist Sondhi Limthongkul today and calls on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government to ensure a quick investigation.

According to local and international news reports, at around 5:30 a.m. armed assailants in a blue pick-up truck without license plates blocked Sondhi’s vehicle and shot out its tires while he was being driven to the offices of Manager Media Group, which he owns, in Bangkok. The reports said the two gunmen fired repeatedly into Sondhi’s vehicle with automatic weapons before speeding away.

Sondhi was rushed to the nearby Vachira Hospital and underwent emergency surgery to remove bullet fragments from his skull and shoulder. He was in stable condition after the surgery, news reports said. A well-know figure in Thailand, Sondhi owns print, television, and Internet operations. His Asia Satellite Television (ASTV) station released pictures, also carried by several wire agencies, showing him bloodied as he entered the hospital.

According to The Associated Press, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), led by Sondhi, immediately said the attack was politically motivated, a claim that police said was under investigation. PAD, which last year contributed to the fall of two administrations, aligned with former and now exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the rise of Abhisit’s government. PAD’s protests laid siege to Government House and Bangkok’s main international airport and were carried live 24 hours a day over his ASTV television station last year.

“The attack on Sondhi Limthongkul is shocking,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We call on the authorities to bring those responsible to justice. This attack must be seen as part of the wider assault on the media that has become a disturbing hallmark of the long-running divisions within Thailand.”

In a televised afternoon address, Abhisit said that his government would launch a probe into the assassination attempt. He expressed concern that “war weapons had emerged and were used in the capital,” according to news reports. The state of emergency, including controls on media that Abhisit put into effect on Sunday, remains in place. The regulations give government authorities legal powers to censor news deemed a threat to national security. Local media quoted government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn as saying that the murder attempt on Sondhi had influenced the government’s decision to keep the decree in place.

According to the government-run Thai News Agency, the government has ordered three different community radio stations to temporarily stop broadcasting. The three stations were not named but were located in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Lampang and the northeastern province of Udon Thani, areas where Thaksin’s influence is known to be strong. CPJ is investigating the reports. 

A rival group, known as the United Front against Dictatorship for Democracy, has staged anti-government protests in recent weeks that were broadcast live over its satellite D Station. The station also carried live video call-ins from Thaksin, who on several occasions called on his supporters to lead a “people’s revolution” against Abhisit’s coalition government. Authorities blocked D Station’s signal on Monday, according to local news reports, and police have raided the station’s offices in Bangkok’s Lad Phrao district.