Attacks on the Press 2009: Thailand

Top Developments
• Amid partisan conflict, media owner is target of failed assassination.
• Heavily used lese majeste laws criminalize criticism of royal family.

Key Statistic
2,000: Web sites blocked by government for violating lese majeste laws.

Thai media were caught in the middle of a political conflict that entered its fourth year of destabilizing antigovernment street demonstrations and tough government responses. Both sides in the conflict—supporters and opponents of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—threatened journalists, some of whom were openly aligned to factions taking part in the protest movements.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
As fighting surges,
so does danger to press

Makings of a Massacre
Country Summaries
North Korea
Sri Lanka
Other developments

On April 12, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government declared a state of emergency, a decree that gave authorities the legal power to censor news considered a threat to national security. The red shirt-wearing United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), an antigovernment group that aimed to restore Thaksin to power, had upped the ante by blockading traffic in the capital, Bangkok, disrupting an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting, and clashing violently with security forces.

The day after declaring a state of emergency, the government blocked the UDD-aligned satellite news broadcaster D Station, which had run live broadcasts of the UDD’s protests. Thaksin had been making frequent video-link calls to D Station from exile in Dubai in which he frequently urged his supporters to overthrow Abhisit’s government in a “people’s revolution.” The government, citing national security, moved to shut the station under the Internal Security Act.

Prime Minister’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey ordered local satellite provider Thaicom to cut D Station’s signal, and police raided the station’s offices atop a shopping mall in Bangkok’s gritty Lad Phrao district. Sathit told local reporters that D Station was targeted because it was “capable of causing chaos.” The government also ordered three provincial community radio stations to close and blocked 71 Web sites the government saw as aligned with Thaksin. All were allowed to resume operations when the state of emergency was lifted later that month.

UDD protesters also moved against the media, threatening journalists from private and state-run news sources whom they perceived as unsympathetic to their cause. Coinciding with their ramped-up street protests in Bangkok, the UDD staged demonstrations in front of several offices of Channel 11, operated by the government-run National Broadcasting Services of Thailand. In several northeastern provinces, Channel 11 station managers were forced at times to stop their broadcasts.

On April 8, UDD protesters in Bangkok hurled bottles and spat at reporters from television channels 3 and 7 for what they said was underreporting of the number of protesters attending a mass rally staged by the UDD near Government House. Red-shirted protesters surrounded Channel 3’s mobile broadcast unit and, threatening violence, forced reporters to take sanctuary in a nearby Buddhist temple, according to the English-language daily The Nation.

The next day, a UDD supporter threw a homemade explosive device near the offices of Asia Satellite Television (ASTV), a news station aligned with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement that, since 2005, has campaigned against Thaksin-led or -aligned governments. Nobody was hurt in the attack. Police initially apprehended a suspect but were forced to release him after they were surrounded by UDD protesters, according to The Nation.

When troops clashed with protesters on April 13, local and foreign media were free to cover the melee. State media reported there were no deaths in the clash, although more than 100 were reported injured. UDD leaders in Bangkok, and Thaksin from exile, claimed in interviews with the BBC and CNN that many protesters had been shot, killed, and hauled away in military trucks, and that state-run television stations were complicit in a government cover-up.

International media and wire service coverage of the clash, however, did not corroborate the assertions of Thaksin and the UDD. Minister Sathit told local media in the aftermath of the crackdown that the government had established a “war room” to counter Thaksin’s claims to foreign media and was “watching some sections of the foreign media” and would identify foreign reporters who had “damaged the country.”  

In a violent escalation, the media owner, ASTV television commentator, and PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul was targeted for assassination April 17 as he traveled to his morning television program. Two assailants forcibly stopped Sondhi’s vehicle and fired more than 50 rounds during the pre-dawn attack. Sondhi survived but underwent emergency surgery to remove bullet fragments from his skull and shoulder.

Arrest warrants were issued for two suspects—Army Sgt. Maj. Panya Srihera, a non-commissioned officer at a Special Warfare Unit, and Police Cpl. Worawut Mungsanti—but they had not been served by late year. Deputy National Police Chief Pol Thanee Somboonsap told reporters that the investigation had been hindered by threats to investigating officers, and by police officials who “act like spies” and leak information. 

Thailand’s monarchy was drawn deeper into the country’s political conflict as concerns arose about 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s declining health and an uncertain royal succession. Both sides to the power struggle professed loyalty to the crown. Reporters, bloggers, academics, and Internet users all came under fire through the expanded use of lese majeste (injured majestry) and other related laws that criminalize criticism of the Thai royal family. Thailand’s lese majeste laws are among the harshest in the world, allowing for jail terms of three to 15 years for guilty convictions.

Justice Minister Piraphan Salirathavibhaga told reporters that he would consider toughening criminal penalties for publishing online material critical of the royal family. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology claimed in mid-year to have blocked more than 2,000 Web sites and 8,300 Web pages, including popular message boards, because they allegedly violated lese majeste laws.

Former journalist and UDD activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was convicted in August on three counts of lese majeste and sentenced to 18 years in prison for anti-royal comments made during a public protest in 2007. Suwicha Thakor, an oil rig engineer, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act for sending pictures over the Internet that pilloried King Bhumibol Adulyadej and heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Suwicha’s sentence was commuted to 10 years after he pleaded guilty.  

On March 6, a group of Crime Suppression Division police officials raided the offices and arrested the executive director of the popular online news site Prachatai. Chiranuch Premchaiporn was detained and interrogated by police officials for several hours before being released on bail. She was charged in April under national security-related Article 15 of the 2007 Computer Crime Act, which effectively extended the crime of lese majeste to the Internet, for postings made to a Prachatai discussion board critical of Queen Sirikit. Chiranuch was forced to reveal the poster’s identity and faced a possible 50 years in prison on various charges, according to press reports. The complaints were still under police investigation in late year.

Foreign correspondents and publications also came under threat. BBC correspondent Jonathan Head faced three separate lese majeste complaints filed by Police Lt. Col. Wattanasak Mungkandee, who alleged Head’s reporting and public comments were critical of the monarchy. Senior BBC editors held meetings in February with Prime Minister Abhisit and former royalist premier Anand Panyarachun to seek a resolution to the complaints. Head was reassigned to Turkey in July. The complaints were still pending in late year.

In January, July, and October, local distributors blocked editions of the U.K.-based magazine The Economist from entering the country because of articles commenting on the royal family and the increased use of lese majeste laws. In December 2008, distributors blocked another edition of the magazine that included pointed criticism of Bhumibol’s rule of more than six decades.

On June 30, Laksana Kornsilpa, a private citizen and supporter of PAD causes, filed a lese majeste complaint against board members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. In her complaint, she claimed the club violated lese majeste laws by selling DVD copies of a 2007 speech at the club that touched on the monarchy. The speech had been given by former journalist, government spokesman, and UDD co-leader Jakrapob Penkair.

CPJ sent a letter in January urging Abhisit to consider amending the country’s lese majeste laws. A similar letter signed by a group of 50 prominent international scholars and dignitaries addressed to the prime minister and released at the Foreign Correspondents Club in March also urged the government to reform the country’s anti-crown laws. In meetings with journalists, Abhisit acknowledged “problems” with enforcement of the laws. No immediate action was taken to change the laws.