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Thailand - World Report 2009

124 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index

-  Area: 514,000 sq. km.
-  Population: 65,493,298
-  Language: Thai
-  Head of government: Abhisit Vejjajiva, since December 2008

The Thai media has been buffeted by repeated political crises. Several journalists have been assaulted by demonstrators and scores of media have been censored for openly supporting the “red shirts”. But it has been a crackdown on Internet users and intellectuals for alleged crimes of lese-majeste that posed the greatest threat to free expression in the country.

The Thai press is considerably freer than that of its neighbours. The leading English-language dailies, The Nation and Bangkok Post and in Thai, Matichon, Khaosod and Thai Rath enjoy genuine freedom of expression except on one taboo subject: the king and the royal family. Most of the Thai journalists voice the same reverence for King Bhumipol as the vast majority of the population. The others are forced into self-censorship.

The “yellow shirt” and the “red shirt” demonstrations, successively seeking to overturn governments favourable or otherwise to former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, are dangerous events for the press to cover. Television reporters have been physically assaulted by the “red shirts” and studios of a TV station favourable to the “yellow shirts” had shots fired at it at the end of 2008.

The army has returned to its barracks after the 2006 coup, but it continues to own more than 120 radios stations and two television stations. Cable news channels, including those in the Nation group, try to cover news objectively but others, including ASTV, support the “yellow shirts”.

Professional hit-men took advantage of the political chaos to shoot dead four journalists in 2008, including two correspondents for Bangkok’s celebrated newspaper Matichon. In the south of the country, where the army is battling an Islamist rebellion, one reporter was killed and several others wounded in bombings.

The government has put in place a system of censorship and surveillance of the Internet to prevent any criticism of the king. More than 50,000 web pages have been blocked, according to the information and communications ministry.

Under Article 112 of the criminal code, “anyone defaming, insulting or threatening the king, the queen, the presumptive heir or the regent” is guilty of the crime of lese-majeste and can be sentenced to three to 15 years in prison. And the 2007 law on cyber-crime gives the authorities the power to check personal information of internet-users without legal control.

Thais and foreigners have paid a high price for this new campaign against the crime of lese-majeste. Australian author Harry Nicolaides spent several months in prison in Bangkok after bringing out a book in which he referred to the behaviour of the king’s son towards one of his mistresses.

Thai Internet user Suwicha Thakor was sentenced to ten years in prison after being convicted of “offence” for posting a retouched photo of the king, under the Computer Act and two counts of “lese-majeste”. A renowned intellectual fled the country after being the subject of a second complaint.

The authorities, who faced international criticism for these free expression violations, reacted by going even further. A correspondent for the BBC is the target of several complaints of “lese-majeste” and in January 2009 distribution was blocked of an edition of the British news magazine The Economist for reporting on this situation. The government had said just beforehand that it wanted to “educate foreigners about the crime of lese-majeste”.

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