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Small attack on Thai newspaper has large implications

By Shawn W. Crispin/CPJ Southeast Asia Representative on May 13, 2013 1:22 PM ET

To head off rising tensions between supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and cartoonist Somchai Katanyutanan, who faces possible criminal defamation charges for critical comments he posted on his personal Facebook page, Thailand's government has to make sure police fully investigate this weekend's attack on Thai Rath, the country's largest circulation daily newspaper. The government's public sensitivity to expression such as Somchai's has spurred recent political violence in Thailand, including threats against journalists. 

According to local reports, four assailants threw firecrackers and two hollow iron balls--the kind used in the French lawn game "petanque"-- at the newspaper's main office in Bangkok early Saturday morning. Glass was shattered in a security booth and two guards were injured. The perpetrators got away on motorcycles. Police officials said they were checking fingerprints from the crime scene and footage from CCTV surveillance cameras to identify the suspects, reports said.

Saturday's attack comes as Bangkok Metropolitan Police, at the request of Yingluck's government, are investigating Somchai for a Facebook post which referred to Yingluck as an "evil woman" and likened a speech she made on Thai politics to selling out national interests, according to reports. Yingluck has publicly defended the late April speech in Mongolia, which was critical of the 2006 military coup that ousted her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, from power.

If charged and convicted under Thailand's penal code, Somchai faces a maximum two years in prison and 200,000 baht (US$6,730) in fines. The police complaint, which was filed on May 3, accused him on three counts: insulting an official during an official event, public defamation, and violating the Computer Crime Act, which prohibits the posting of defamatory comments over the Internet.

On May 7, the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group, also known as the Red Shirts, protested in front of Thai Rath's office to demand that Somchai apologize for the critical commentary.

Police said they were investigating whether the UDD, which has in the past harassed and assaulted reporters perceived as biased against its political activities and patrons, was behind the attack, according to the reports.

This type of crude attack against the press happens too frequently in Thailand. Not only should the government vigorously pursue those behind the attack on Thai Rath, they should stop criminal defamation proceedings against Somchai.

On May 5, Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Minister Anudith Nakornthap said his ministry would censor online materials and take strict legal action against anyone who unfairly criticized the prime minister, according to local reports. Two days later, Yingluck backed the ICT Ministry's right to censor any Web content that "goes too far" in criticizing the government, local reports said. No new legislation has been proposed; rather, the government is indicating that it will use existing laws, including the Computer Crime Act, to enforce a new, arbitrary standard. 

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 as critical of the monarchy. Now her government aims to expand that same censorship machinery to shield herself from online criticism.

 

[Reporting from Bangkok]


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