Thai distributors block The Economist over article

New York, July 16, 2009–Distributors blocked the July 4-10 edition of The Economist from entering Thailand for an article that covered the mounting threat of lese majeste complaints to the country’s Internet freedom and freedom of expression, according to a local distributor and international news reports. 

This is the third time since December that distributors have opted not to distribute the British weekly newsmagazine because of concerns over its coverage of the monarchy, according to a distributor who spoke on condition of anonymity with CPJ. The Economist has more than 2,500 paid subscribers in Thailand and is also distributed by various newsstands and book stores.

The one-page article, “Treason in cyberspace,” noted that the scope of investigations under the law has recently widened and that Thai authorities have used the law as justification for blocking more than 8,300 Web pages since March 2008. It also referenced the lese majeste case pending against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of online news site Prachatai, who is charged for allowing a comment critical of Queen Sirikit to be posted by a reader to her site’s message board. Because she faces multiple criminal counts for perceived anti-monarchy postings, The Economist reported, she could face as long as 50 years in prison. The article also discussed the lese majeste complaint, filed by a private citizen, against the entire board of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

Authorities have not formally banned The Economist’s distribution in Thailand and the following week’s edition of the magazine was available on local newsstands, according to CPJ research.

“The growing use of lese majeste charges has had an unmistakable chilling effect on freedom of expression in Thailand,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “We call on the authorities to amend these laws so that journalists and those who distribute their work are not cowed into self-censorship.”

Thailand’s lese majeste laws are designed to shield the monarchy from criticism, and guilty convictions are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Distributors of materials deemed by Thai authorities to be offensive to the crown are also liable under the law’s draconian provisions.

The Economist was first blocked last December over an article that alleged the monarchy had a role in Thailand’s political crisis. The January 24 issue was then blocked, also for an article on a lese majeste case. By law, the Thai monarchy is above politics, but the institution and its symbols have featured prominently in the country’s political conflict pitting supporters and detractors of former and now exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

An uncertain royal succession and 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s declining health have also contributed to the political tensions and growing censorship of news and online content that touches on the monarchy.