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(Bangkok) - A libel suit against critics of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra filed by a corporation he founded, along with increasing government pressure on the media, threatens to stifle Thailand’s beleaguered free press.

Shin Corporation, Thailand’s largest telecommunications conglomerate that was founded by Thaksin and is controlled by members of his family, last week filed for civil damages of 400 million Thai baht (US$9.6 million) from media-reform campaigner Supinya Klangnarong and three editors of the Thai Post. On June 22, a Thai court also agreed to hear the case as a criminal libel case, which could result in punishment including imprisonment and a heavy fine.

The charges stem from a story in the Thai Post on July 16, 2003, in which Supinya, who heads the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said her research showed that Shin Corporation was a major beneficiary of the Thaksin government’s policies. In the story, Supinya claimed that since Thaksin became prime minister in February 2001, the company's profits have soared by almost 40 billion baht (US$960 million).

“When business mixes with politics at the highest level in Thailand, it’s impossible to distinguish a libel suit from an attempt to silence the prime minister’s critics,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Thailand’s once-vigorous free press is being slowly squeezed to death.”

Over the past three years, the Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcasters Association have documented more than 20 cases in which news editors, as well as print and broadcast journalists, have been dismissed or transferred, or have their work tampered with, to appease the government. Journalists and editors have told Human Rights Watch that they are routinely pressured by the government to alter news coverage and rein in overly critical reports. At the same time, corporate and government advertising has been used to reward media outlets that follow the government line and punish those that don’t.

Despite the terms of Thailand’s 1997 constitution, which calls for the liberalization of radio and television frequencies, a lack of political will by Thaksin’s government and conflicts of interest with his powerful media holdings have allowed the government to influence radio and television news, muzzling criticism and objective reporting by news outlets.

Even international news agencies now face pressure from the Thai government. Since taking office, the Thaksin government has arbitrarily used official approval for work permits and visa renewals as a tool for pressuring foreign journalists working in Thailand.

The pressure has intensified as the government moves closer to parliamentary election scheduled for February, with media outlets increasingly directed to report favorable stories about the prime minister and his government and to present news to make government policy look good.

“The Thaksin administration uses powerful political and financial means to stifle media freedom and shape an unchallenged public image of a strong government,” said Adams. “With this kind of ability to monopolize public opinion, Prime Minister Thaksin is now capable of doing many things that military dictators in the past could only accomplish through brute force.”

Thaksin already owns, or has major stakes in, many of Thailand’s media outlets. Since he took office three years ago, his manipulation and control of the media has undermined Thailand’s recent gains on respecting human rights. Government pressure has stifled significant social debates, for instance allowing a cover up of the government’s poor performance in stemming the outbreak of avian flu.

Similarly, the government has used its influence over the press to silence criticism of a violent, state-sponsored “war on drugs.” Last year, more than 2,000 people were killed within three months after the government declared war on those accused of being drug dealers or drug users. To read more about this, please see the Human Rights Watch report Not Enough Graves: The War on Drugs, HIV/AIDS and Violations of Human Rights.

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