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TAKE ACTION! PROTEST AGAINST LESE MAJESTE CHARGES

Thailand's new administration has stepped up its use of lese majeste charges to harass journalists and stifle free expression, leading at least one writer to go into exile because of the charges, report the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members.

Political writer and university professor Ji Ungpakorn fled Thailand for the United Kingdom over the weekend due to fears he would not receive a fair trial related to lese majeste accusations filed against him, say SEAPA and CPJ.

Ungpakorn, who holds dual citizenship, has been charged with defaming the monarchy over his 2006 book "A Coup for the Rich", which criticised the military coup staged by General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin the same year.

The charge of lese majeste, which can be used against anyone who defames, insults or threatens the monarchy, carries a possible three- to 15-year prison term.

According to SEAPA, shortly before Ungpakorn left Thailand, he posted a strongly worded letter on the Internet calling for more freedom of expression in Thailand.

"We need to have freedom of expression. Freedom to choose a government that the majority wants without suppression, without threat and fear," part of his manifesto said.

In a separate case, Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was sentenced to three years in prison on lese majeste charges on 19 January. Nicolaides referred briefly to the monarchy in his novel set in Thailand, and has been held since 31 August 2008 in Bangkok.

Following the charge, the government banned an article about Nicolaides's case and the ruling party's use of the lese majeste law in the London-based "Economist" magazine. The article noted, "A backlash may be brewing, though, and not just among Bangkok's chattering classes. Conventional wisdom holds that public reverence of Bhumibol, 81, is genuine and deeply felt. The same patently does not apply to the heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn."

This week, RSF organised a cyber-demonstration outside a virtual version of Bangkok's Royal Palace calling for Nicolaides's release: http://www.rsf.org/freeharry/index.php?id=21

BBC correspondent Jonathan Head currently faces three different charges of lese majeste for articles and public comments he made at Bangkok's Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

According to RSF, the lese majeste offence has led to the jailing of around 100 people. RSF is calling directly on King Bhumibol Adulyadej to reform the law.

The law has already been used to shut down 2,300 websites, and the new government is seeking to censor at least 4,000 more, CPJ says. According to the BBC, it has even set up a special website called protecttheking.net, urging people to show their loyalty and inform on anyone criticising the monarchy. It has also established an Internet security centre to coordinate the blocking of websites deemed offensive to the monarchy.

The site managed to block 4,818 websites in its first 24 hours of operation, said the BBC. Sources in the military told the BBC that top generals are concerned about growing anti-monarchy sentiment, particularly among supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Many of Thaksin's supporters believe that members of the royal family have backed anti-Thaksin movements.

Thailand's media climate is fast deteriorating under new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Aside from the lese majeste charges and the censoring of thousands of websites, the government has also threatened legal action against community radio stations that are considered critical of the authorities, say the IFEX members.

Visit these links:
- SEAPA: http://tinyurl.com/b6sysa
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/bsfefy
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30120
- RSF report, "Censorship and imprisonment: abuses in the name of lese majeste": http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_en_ok.pdf
- IFEX Thailand page: http://tinyurl.com/5hocu9
- The Economist, "The trouble with Harry," http://tinyurl.com/cl522e
- BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7871748.stm
- Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) on how to circumvent the censors: http://tinyurl.com/chzgba
(Photo of Thailand's King, courtesy of RSF)

(11 February 2009)

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