Thai press club’s board charged with lese majeste

New York, July 2, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists rejects the politically motivated lese majeste charges filed on Tuesday by a private citizen against board members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT). Violations of lese majeste laws are a criminal offense in Thailand, punishable by three to 15 years in prison.

The charges were filed by Laksana Kornsilpa, a translator and a sympathizer of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement that paved the way for the military ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The group seized Bangkok’s international airport for more than one week last November.

According to local press reports, Laksana claimed in her complaint that the FCCT violated Thailand’s lese majeste laws by selling DVD copies of a speech made there in 2007 by former journalist, government spokesman, and United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship protest group co-leader Jakrapob Penkair. His speech, in part, touched on the monarchy. The FCCT released a public statement saying only that it would cooperate with the police inquiry.

The FCCT’s board is composed of representatives from several major international news organizations, including Inter Press Service correspondent and FCCT President Marwaan Macan-Markar, BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, Wall Street Journal reporter Patrick Barta, Bloomberg’s Daniel Ten Kate, Channel News Asia’s Anasuya Sanyal, Business Times’ Greg Lowe and The Straits Times’ Nirmal Ghosh. The complaint also named local Thai PBS television reporter Karuna Buakamsri, and the Bangkok-based Nation’s Jim Pollard.

“We reject these frivolous charges against the FCCT, which are clearly aimed at undermining press freedom in Thailand,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government has acknowledged that lese majeste laws are often abused for political purposes and we strongly encourage him to reform these laws to protect press freedom as outlined in the 2007 constitution.”

Thai law allows any citizen to bring complaints against anyone they believe has insulted the country’s monarchy. The charges brought against the FCCT are the latest in a flurry of politicized accusations and counter-accusations that have become part and parcel of Thailand’s grinding political conflict between pro- and anti-Thaksin groups. They have severely undermined freedom of expression.  

Jakrapob, now in self-imposed exile for his anti-government protest activities, faces lese majeste charges over comments he made during his FCCT presentation. Similarly, BBC correspondent Jonathan Head currently faces three different counts of lese majeste, all filed by the same senior Thai police official, for his public comments and reports that have touched on the monarchy.

The FCCT and its members have come under growing official harassment. Police officials last December requested a DVD recording of an FCCT event titled “The State of Politics and the Way Forward for Thailand” at which members of a pro-Thaksin group made reference to Head’s reporting.

The FCCT announced on December 24 that it was suspending sales of that particular event’s recording, saying in a statement that “DVD recordings of Club events had been misused by certain individuals with their own agendas.”

Thai authorities have also cracked down in recent months on thousands of Web sites for posting materials deemed by authorities as offensive to the monarchy.