Thai media owner, editor handed prison sentences

New York, September 14, 2009The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Thai criminal court decision on Thursday to sentence media owner, television commentator, and political activist Sondhi Limthongkul to two years in prison in connection with criminal libel charges filed by a former government minister. 

Sondhi posted 200,000 baht (US$5,882) bail and told courtroom reporters that he would appeal the conviction, according to local news reports.

The court also handed down a one-year jail term to Khunthong Lorseriwanich, editor and publisher of Sondhi’s Thai language Puu Jaht Gahn (Manager) newspaper for quoting Sondhi’s remarks in the paper. Khunthong’s jail term was suspended because, the court said, he was a first-time offender. He was ordered to pay a 30,000 baht ($882) fine.  

The charges stem from remarks that Sondhi, an often-fiery commentator and political opposition figure, made during his regular “Muang Thai Rai Sapada” (Thailand Weekly) satellite television news program carried on Asian Satellite Television in January 2007.

He accused then-Finance Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula of amending laws to protect government officials from prosecution in a government-run lottery scandal. Sondhi also alleged in his commentary that Pridiyathorn had protected a former Revenue Department official from prosecution. Pridiyathorn, the plaintiff in the case, said Sondhi’s comments smeared his reputation by accusing him of whitewashing the wrongdoings of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, according to The Nation newspaper.

“The threat of criminal libel and defamation suits result in self-censorship across all Thai media,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program director. “We urge the appellate court to reverse this verdict, and call on the government to abolish criminal defamation altogether from Thai law.”

On Friday, an appeals court upheld a separate criminal libel conviction handed down in March against Sondhi over critical remarks he made about then-Deputy Information and Communications Technology Minister Phumtham Wechayachai. The comments were made during Sondhi’s weekly television talk show in November 2005. The decision reduced the trial court’s original prison sentence from two years to six months. Sondhi was released on bail and planned to file an appeal with the Supreme Court, according to news reports.

Sondhi, a co-leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement that contributed to the fall of two administrations aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, faces potential terrorism charges for his alleged role in the week-long siege of Bangkok’s main international and domestic airports last year.

Sondhi survived an April 17 assassination attempt by assailants who forcibly stopped his vehicle and opened fire with automatic weapons. Arrest warrants have been issued but not served for two suspects, Army Sgt. Maj. Panya Srihera, a non-commissioned officer at a Special Warfare Unit, and Police Cpl. Worawut Mungsanti.

Then-Deputy National Police Chief Pol Thanee Somboonsap, who was this month promoted to chief, told reporters in July that arrest warrants would be issued for as many as 10 more suspects, including civilians, police and soldiers, as soon as the first two suspects are apprehended. He told the Bangkok Post that an investigation into the assassination had been hindered by threats to investigating officers and other police officials who leak secret information and “act like spies.”