Reporters Without Borders voiced outrage at the suspended sentence of four months in prison and fine of 40,000 baht (840 euros) imposed yesterday by a court in the province of Ang Thong on Sathien Chanthorn, the former operator of Angthong Community Radio Learning Station (FM 106.25), after he was found guilty under a 1955 telecommunications law of broadcasting without a licence and illegal possession of radio equipment.
"This verdict violates the Thai constitution and poses a serious threat to the country’s thousands of community radio operators," the press freedom organisation said. "We voice our full solidarity with Chanthorn and all the community radios that do a remarkable job by letting ordinary people speak on the air, and we call on the Thai courts to recognize Chanthorn’s constitutional right to run a community radio."
The authorities shut down several FM and community radio stations last year but this is the first time that an operator has been convicted for broadcasting programmes.
"I do not understand what I am guilty of," Chanthorn told his judges. "I followed the orders of the public relations department. What’s more, I even received financial assistance from a government social investment fund. If I am guilty, what will happen to other community radio stations?"
A 56-year-old farmer, Chanthorn pointed out to the court that article 40 of the 1997 constitution encourages the creation of community radios with the aim of promoting more media diversity. His lawyer argued that article 40 supersedes the 1955 law under which he was convicted. Chanthorn plans to appeal.
The police raided Chanthorn’s radio station and confiscated his broadcast equipment on 30 October 2002, while the public relations department (which is closely linked to the prime minister’s office) ordered its closure on the grounds that it was violating the 1955 law.
Chanthorn had started the radio station the previous July in Baan Bornam. It functioned without commercial advertising and expressed some criticism of the local authorities. After his equipment was confiscated, Chanthorn started another community radio.
After today’s trial, Chanthorn accused the authorities of banning community radio stations from carrying reports about anti-government demonstrations called by journalist Sondhi Limthongkul.