Court deals another blow to media freedom in Thailand | Asia Pacific

Court deals another blow to media freedom in Thailand

Court deals another blow to media freedom in Thailand

Updated 23 January 2013, 22:05 AEDT

To Thailand, where human rights groups have voiced concern over the jailing of a magazine editor for defaming the country's king.

Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was sentenced on Wednesday to eleven years' in prison, but his lawyers plan to appeal.

Mr Somyot, who pleaded not guilty, was arrested in 2010, charged with Lese Majeste over two articles published in the 'Voice of Thaksin' magazine.

Amnesty International said Mr Somyot was a 'prisoner of conscience' and called the sentence 'regressive'.

It was an opinion echoed by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, SEAPA.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director, Southeast Asian Press Alliance SEAPA, in Bangkok

VENKITESWARAN: We do think the sentence is rather harsh, and follows the trend of quite harsh sentences in cases of lese majeste. We've seen in a number of cases that sentences have been up to 20 years and Somyot's case is not much different - even though it was clearly established that he was not responsible for the content that was produced.

Even internationally, UN special mandate holders have recognised that the provisions under the penal code section 112 is very disproportionate to the crime that was charged. That it is very, very harsh. And it's not only the sentence, but also Somyot's treatment upon arrest, remand and detention during the trial. We're very disturbed by the negligence in medical treatment, the denial of bail - he'd applied for it eight times. You know, the entire process, not just the sentence, has been very disproportionate and unfair.

The articles in question were satire pieces, but the Courts said that people would understand that the characters, the references were to the (Thai) monarchy. It leaves very little room to argue. A week ago, another leader from the Red Shirt movement was also handed a sentence for lese majeste - for what he did NOT say. And the court said what he did not say implied that he was referring to the monarchy. So you can see they're really casting a very wide net, in terms of interpretating the content.

LAM: The prime minister Yingluck Shinwatra had promised to amend the lese majeste law, but has so far done very little. Might one assume then, that this is a highly politically-sensitive issue for her?

VENKITESWARAN: I think I'll also just add that very soon after she came into office, she and her party made a vow in parliament, together with the Opposition party, that they would NOT touch any constitutional amendments that would affect the penal code provision 112. So very early in her term, she already backed away from what was esssentially the (election) campaign manifesto for the Puea Thai party.

LAM: Do you find that surprising, given that Mr Somyot's magazine is very supportive of the PM's brother, the exiled former prime minister Thaksin?

VENKITESWARAN: Actually, we're not surprised. It's a political game, it's about drawing allies, and they have made a stand not to touch the issue. And this also reflects the divisions within the Puea Thai party and its supporter base. So there is still strong movement, within the Red Shirt and what Somyot was actually also pushing for - the amendment. But then, you have the top leadership ignoring it or avoiding it, because they have other agendas.

LAM: What impact do you think this latest sentence might have on the media in Thailand?

VENTIKESWARAN: By and large, the mainstream media has avoided discussion that might implicate the monarchy. And except for the trend in the last few months, there's

been a bit more discussion, but very little. But I think that the impact that's much greater is in the Court judgement, which places the liability back on the editor, despite the spirit of the Printing Act, which removes that liability from the editor solely. But now the Court is placing it back on to the editor. So, in terms of coverage of issues, the mainstream media has been deliberately silent. But I think this judgement may actually cause abit more of uneasiness, because it places the responsibility back on editors.

LAM: Given that Thailand's monarchy is apolitical and not formally linked to any political party, why would there be any need at all for the media, to draw the royal house into any kind of political discussion or debate?

VENTIKESWARAN: You're right in the sense that they (Thai royalty) are apolitical, but then they're also very much supported, held up by the military. The military is a very very key institution in Thai politics. So there is a link that draws the different institutions in that entire process.

By extension, many of the other institutions are connected to royalty, and in many discussions, when you talk of governance, then you come to a point where the patrons, the business owners are actually the royal family. So that limits alot of discussions.


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