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The press is much freer in Thailand than in neighbouring countries. The main English-language newspapers (The Nation and Bangkok Post) and the Thai-language ones (Daily News, Kom Chad Luek, Thai Rath, Matichon and Khaosod) enjoy a great deal of freedom except on one subject, the monarchy. Criticism of the royal family is a taboo. Most journalists express the same reverence for King Bhumipol as most of the population. The rest have to censor themselves.
The political turmoil in 2010 affected the media. Two foreign journalists were fatally shot in Bangkok while covering clashes between the army and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, better known as the “Red Shirts”: Hiroyuki Muramoto, a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters, on 10 April 2010, and Italian freelance photojournalist Fabio Polenghi, during an army assault on Red Shirt protesters on 19 May 2010.
Caught between the two main political coalitions, journalists did not stop been harassed when the clashes ended. A month before the national assembly was dissolved in May 2011, ten community radio stations with Red Shirt links in the Bangkok area were raided. Two months after the opposition’s victory in the July 2011 elections, Channel 7 TV reporter Somjit Nawakruasunthorn was the target of an intimidation campaign by Red Shirts, who accused her of addressing the new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, inappropriately in an interview.
Journalists’ safety is also compromised in the south of the country where an Islamist rebellion continues to be responsible for bombings.
Although the new government announced that it would reexamine lèse-majesté cases, it has made no effort to end arbitrary use of lèse-majesté charges under article 112 of the criminal code, which in practice is a political censorship tool. Under this article any defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen, crown prince or regent are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of the Prachatai news website, is facing a very uncertain future. She was arrested on 31 March 2010 in connection with several lèse-majesté complaints which, if they lead to a prosecution, could potentially result in a sentence of up to 50 years in prison. At the same time, she is currently being tried in a separate case on charges of violating articles 14 and 15 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
The state of emergency that was decreed in December 2010 has been replaced by an Internal Security Act that makes it easier for the government to censor the Internet. With about 30 per cent of the population connected to the Internet, the Thai blogosphere is very active and online activity is closely monitored. The justice ministry created a cyber-scouts unit at the end of 2010 to look out for “illegal” online content. Between 80,000 and 400,000 URLs were reportedly blocked in January 2011. Alternative news websites suspected of Red Shirt links are often censored and criticizing the government in a blog often leads to lèse-majesté charges.
Surapak Phuchaisaeng and Ampon Tangnoppakul were among the first netizens to be arrested for lèse-majesté after the new government took over. Surapak, 40, was arrested on 2 September 2011 in connection with photos, videos and messages he had allegedly posted on Facebook. Ampon was arrested on 3 August 2011 in connection with the SMS messages he had allegedly sent to a government official. Thanthawut Thaweewarodomkul, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison on a lèse-majesté charge in March 2011, is awaiting the outcome of his appeal in a 25-square-metre cell with around 30 other inmates amid an appalling lack of hygiene.
All this suggests that the Thai state’s repressive policies will continue. The conviction rate is still about 95 per cent. Several netizens continue to be detained, in most cases for violating the Computer Crimes Act.
Updated in October 2011
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