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(Bangkok) - The dropping of frivolous defamation lawsuits by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against one of his chief critics is a welcome step, but intimidation, fear, and censorship still permeate the Thai media, Human Rights Watch said today.

On Tuesday, Thaksin heeded the advice of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and dropped six criminal and civil defamation suits against journalist and Manager Media Group founder Sondhi Limthongkul. The king also advised the prime minister not to overreact to critics and to tolerate media criticisms instead of trying to suppress them.

In total, Sondhi could have faced more than ten years in prison, and fines and damages of over U.S.$50 million from the six suits. Human Rights Watch said that the legal offensive against the media was the most serious in a series of attacks by the Thaksin administration on the Thai media since he came to power in 2001.

Sondhi and one of his colleagues, Sarocha Pornudomsak, continue to face two police investigations into lese majeste offences for allegedly criticizing the king. The first is under the jurisdiction of Provincial Police Region Three. The second is being handled by the Central Investigation Bureau. And Thaksin’s lawyer has not ruled out further suits in the future.

“The Prime Minister should not need the king to intervene to understand that criticism is a necessary part of a healthy democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The test now is whether this was a tactical retreat or represents a newfound commitment to the acceptance of criticism. The dropping of the remaining criminal charges would be a good start.”

In recent months, Sondhi and his associates have become the targets of a series of legal actions by the prime minister after Sondhi became one of Thaksin’s most outspoken and high profile critics. On September 15, the Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT), which is supervised by the Prime Minister’s Office, cancelled Muangthai Rai Sapda (Thailand Weekly), a live news-talk program hosted by Sondhi on TV Channel 9. MCOT claimed the show improperly cited the king and the monarchy on several occasions in the previous month.

Thaksin then appointed a lawyer to file a string of civil defamation suits against Sondhi and his associates from Manager Media Group. The two billion baht (U.S.$50 million) charges sought in these civil suits represent the largest damages ever pursued by any politician or government official in Thailand.

On November 3, a grenade was tossed into the courtyard of Sondhi’s headquarters. On December 2, a group of unidentified men threw bags of feces into the Bangkok office of Manager Media Group. No one has been arrested.

Sondhi defied the attacks and legal actions by moving his popular show to public venues, such as Lampini Park in Bangkok, every Friday. The show's content has also been made available nationwide on the satellite-based News1 Channel, on the Phujadkarn website, and on VCDs. Every Friday thousands of people attended Sondhi’s shows or followed the live broadcast from all over the country.

On November 15, in an apparent attempt to curb the growing popularity of Sondhi’s show, Public Relations Department (PRD) director-general Dusadee Sinchirmsiri ordered officials to tell cable TV operators to stop the broadcast of Sondhi’s show on the grounds that it had been running without permission from the department. At the same time, Wichit Plungsrisakul, chairman of the ruling Thai Rak Thai Party’s legal committee, called on the Information and Communication Technology Ministry to take legal action against the Phujadkarn website for allegedly involving the monarchy in political affairs.

On November 24, Thaksin also filed a criminal suit against Sondhi for defamation. Meanwhile, the Civil Court agreed to issue a gag order against Sondhi, ordering him to refrain from making further criticisms of Thaksin pending the resolution of the defamation cases. That day, Yasothon Provincial Court rejected a police request for arrest warrants against Sondhi and Sarocha on lese majeste charges, making a courageous decision that the references made during Sondhi’s talk show did not defame the king or the royal family.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the army, which has largely withdrawn from public involvement in Thai politics since the return to civilian rule in 1992, has also been active in attacking Sondhi. On November 16, a letter signed by Major General Pruen Suwannathat, commander of the First Infantry Division of the Royal Guard and Prime Minister Thaksin’s classmate in a pre-cadet college, was delivered to Sondhi, telling him to stop involving the monarchy in his personal quarrel with the prime minister. Two days later, supreme commander General Ruengroj Mahasaranond sternly warned that the armed forces would take action if Sondhi did not stop involving the monarchy in his criticism of Prime Minister Thaksin.

“Neither Thaksin nor any other politician should use or allow the military to intimidate journalists,” said Adams. “Doing so would represent a return to the bad old days of Thai politics.”

Since coming to power in 2001, Thaksin has used a potent combination of state and corporate powers to put political and financial pressure on the media in order to limit negative reporting from outlets he does not control. Since 2001, the government has restricted media freedom by withholding or threatening to withhold advertising contracts, operating licenses, and work permits from media outlets, and by filing, or having surrogates file, large defamation cases against prominent activists and independent journalists and media organizations.

Shin Corporation, Thailand’s largest telecommunications conglomerate, was founded by Thaksin and is now controlled by members of his family. It is currently seeking civil damages of four hundred million baht (U.S.$10 million) in libel suits from media freedom activist Supinya Klangnarong and the Thai Post newspaper.

“If the prime minister really wants to create an atmosphere in which public scrutiny of the government is possible, he should ask officials, his followers and his family’s company to terminate the case against Supinya and other defamation suits against the media,” said Adams.

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