Reporters Without Borders expressed dismay that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has announced his resignation, continues to harass the independent press with criminal cases against at least six journalists and media for “defamation”.
The press freedom organisation said it had also recorded seven cases of physical assault, threats and censorship of newspapers on the part of Thaksin's sympathisers over the past two weeks.
”It was, among other things, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's inability to accept the least criticism which brought about his downfall,” it said. “It is appalling that he continues to drag journalists and editors before the courts. We urge the outgoing head of government to withdraw the defamation complaints and bring his supporters in line.”
“Thai journalists need to work without interference in this period of political crisis,” added Reporters Without Borders.
“One of the first tasks of the next government should be to decriminalise defamation and to bring an end to political and financial harassment of independent media. After several years of interventionism, it is urgent that Thailand acts if it wants to improve the state of press freedom,” it said.
Hundreds of journalists rallied in Bangkok on 5 April in response to a call from the Thai Journalists' Association (TJA) to protest against violence and intimidation. “Some want the media to choose their camp, but our position is to remain rigorous and to report the news fairly,” said TJA official Pattara Khumphitak.
Lawyers for Thaksin lodged a complaint for “defamation” on 4 April against the privately-owned daily The Nation which on 20 March carried an article saying that the head of government would not be chairing the committee organising King Bhumibol Aduljadej's 60th anniversary of accession to the throne. According to the Bangkok Post, the criminal court accepted the complaint against Nation Multimedia Group Plc and its managing editor, Pana Janviroj. The prime minister's lawyers are calling for a "punishment” to be imposed and for the verdict and an apology to be published over a two-week period.
A group of demonstrators, some of them members of the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, on 31 March hurled stones at the offices of the press group Manager Media Group, founded by Sondhi Limthongkul. Supporters of the prime minister accuse him of “lèse-majesté”. He was behind the first demonstrations against the premier.
Limthongkul has already had around 40 complaints lodged against him, including one by the head of state, on 4 April. The press boss has counter-attacked by accusing a government minister of defamation. He denies having made offensive remarks about the king, during a meeting on 23 March.
Elsewhere, Thai police on 30 March banned the distribution of the October-December 2005 edition of the political magazine Fah Diew Kan under the Press Act of 1944. Police also seized copies of the publication. The authorities claimed the magazine had attempted to spread disorder and violate “moral standards”. In fact the demonstrators had simply loudly read out articles from the magazine. Its editor, Thanapol Eawsakul, said he would appeal to the administrative court.
Also on 30 March, thousands of pro-Thaksin demonstrators besieged the premises of the Nation group which publishes the daily Thai-language Kom Chad Luek, accused of having insulted the king and the monarchy. Under pressure, the management sacked the chief editor and suspended publication for five days.
The Nation group laid a complaint on 4 April against two Thaksin supporters for “threats” and “false imprisonment”. Around 100 police were deployed to secure the building after further threats were made.
On the same day, members of Thai Rak Thai assaulted Prachuab Wangjai, journalist on Nation Channel TV, while he was covering an opposition meeting in Chiang Mai in the north-west.
Lawyers for the prime minister said on 23 March they had laid a criminal complaint against four privately-owned newspapers, Manager Daily, Krungthep Tooragit, Post Today and Thai Post. The head of government accuses these media of publishing opposition speeches accusing him of selling off the country's assets. Thaksin and other close to him have also threatened to lodge 30 complaints against press chief Sondhi Limthongkul.
On the same day, Chalermchai Yodmalai, head of morning programmes on Channel 9 television, was dismissed by the management. The previous week, the channel reported that pro-Thaksin demonstrators had attracted only 10,000 people in Chiang Rai in the north. Supporters of Thai Rak Thai then left a funeral wreath in front of Channel 9 offices in the city.