Thai journalist harassed over Facebook postings

Bangkok, August 9, 2013–A Thai journalist has been harassed and questioned today in connection with comments he posted to his personal Facebook page in early August that speculated about a possible military coup, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Thai authorities to drop the criminal investigation against Sermsuk Kasitpradit and to refrain broadly from curbing freedom of expression over the Internet.

Sermsuk, political news editor at Thailand’s Public Broadcasting Service, was interrogated at the police-run Technology Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok for more than 90 minutes today. He told CPJ that officers had asked him to explain his intention in making the comments on the Facebook page and that he was told the information he provided would be sent to more senior investigating officers. No charges were immediately filed.

The series of Facebook posts, which were made soon after the government imposed the Internal Security Act on August 1, included replies to other people’s comments on Sermsuk’s page. The first post pointed to rumors that self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra might try to launch an intra-military coup that would elevate his loyalists to top army positions and remove army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and his inner circle of royalists. In subsequent posts, Sermsuk discredited the rumors, noting that, according to him, over the course of Thai history no military coup had been successful without the army commander’s support.

On Monday, Major General Pisit Paoin, commander of the division that interrogated Semsuk, said the Facebook postings could be unlawful if they were intended to make people panic, according to local news reports. The same day, Information and Communication Technology Minister Anudith Nakornthap warned social media users that clicking “like” or sharing online comments deemed by authorities as a threat to national security could violate the Internal Security Act and Computer Crime Act, reports said.

Violations of the Computer Crime Act allow for maximum five-year prison terms and 100,000 baht ($3,200) fines.

Semsuk told CPJ that he has more than 5,000 Facebook friends and that he could have been targeted for harassment to send a signal to other social media users. Three other Facebook users were also summoned for questioning over comments they posted online suggesting that people should stockpile food and water in anticipation of a military takeover.

“The criminal investigation of journalist Sermsuk Kasitpradit for his posts on political events represents the latest threat to Internet freedom in Thailand,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call upon Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government to cease and desist from threatening journalists for merely expressing their opinions online.”

In May, the government threatened to file criminal defamation charges against Thai Rath newspaper cartoonist Somchai Katanyutanan for posting critical comments about Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on his personal Facebook page. ICT Minister Anudith said his ministry would censor online materials and take strict legal action through provisions in the Computer Crime Act against anyone who “unfairly” criticized the premier.

Yingluck’s administration already heavily censors the Internet for anti-royal materials, in line with the country’s harsh lèse-majesté law that bans criticism of the Thai royal family. Last year, the ICT Ministry claimed to have blocked tens of thousands of Facebook pages for posting materials deemed critical of the monarchy.

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