Thailand harasses critical website ahead of constitutional vote

New York, July 12, 2016 – Thai authorities should cease harassing independent news website Prachatai and drop all charges against one of its journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

In recent days, police have detained and released one of the website’s reporters and have raided its office, according to press reports. The raid and the detention came as Thailand prepares for a constitutional referendum scheduled for August 7.

Police, backed by uniformed soldiers, today raided Prachatai‘s Bangkok office to search for leaflets urging a “no” vote on the referendum, but left without seizing any evidence or making any arrests, according to news reports.

That raid followed the July 9 arrest of Prachatai staff reporter Taweesak Kerdpoka, along with four political activists accused of possessing materials urging a “no” vote in the western province of Ratchaburi, according to news reports. The reports said Taweesak was traveling to Ratchaburi to report on a separate group of 18 activists who had been charged with illegal assembly.

“Thai authorities should drop its investigation into Taweesak Kerdpoka, who was merely doing his job as a reporter when he was arrested,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia Program coordinator. “If Thailand’s military junta wants its referendum to be seen as credible, it must stop harassing journalists covering the campaign and let information flow freely to the public.”

Taweesak and the four activists were freed on bail on Monday, according to news reports, but police are still investigating them to determine whether to bring charges under article 61 of the April 22, 2016, Referendum Act, which criminalizes distributing information about the proposed charter that authorities determine “deviat[es] from the facts, contains rude and violent language, or [which] threateningly discourages voters from participating in the referendum.” If charged and convicted, Taweesak and the four activists each face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The police raid aimed to determine whether Taweesak possessed or Prachatai produced leaflets campaigning against the referendum, according to a Prachathai report. Junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suwaree yesterday said that police should investigate Taweesak to determine why he was traveling with the activists, Prachatai reported.

Authorities have used the Referendum Act to block activists from establishing voting-fraud monitoring stations and to threaten opposition politicians who have used social media to campaign for a “no” vote, according to press reports.

Prachatai, which specializes in covering under-reported news topics, has faced harassment under successive governments. The site’s editor, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, was given an eight-month suspended jail sentence in May 2012 for anonymous comments posted to one of Prachatai’s online forums that authorities considered anti-royal. CPJ provided expert written testimony in her defense at the trial.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The text has been revised to correct Steven Butler’s title.