Thai community radio operator faces historic criminal lawsuit

3 November 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

A farmer-turned-broadcaster in Thailand’s Angthong province takes the stand to defend himself on 3 November 2005, in the first criminal lawsuit ever filed by the Thai government against a community radio operator.

On 1 November, broadcaster Sathien Chanthorn, 55, told the court he will stand his ground in the face of charges made against him by the government. Chanthorn, an outspoken commentator, is being accused of making “illegal broadcasts”, a criminal offense under Thailand’s old broadcasting laws.

The farmer-turn broadcaster started his 92.25 MHz radio station in July of 2002, in line government experiments to promote community broadcasting in the Southeast Asian kingdom. Three months later, however, in October 2002, the Public Relations Department (PRD) and the Post and the Telegraph Department ordered his station closed. The authorities charged him with illegally possessing a radio transmitter, and of violating the 1955 Radio Telecommunications Act. If found guilty of the charges, he could be meted a fine of up to 100,000 baht and/or a prison sentence of up to five years.

The closure of Chanthorn’s station took place before the PRD introduced interim rules to govern community radio operations, and pending the establishment of an independent national broadcast regulator.

Media reform advocates and civil right groups have protested against the lawsuit, calling the charges unconstitutional. They say the right to operate community radio is part and parcel of people’s rights to communication, as guaranteed under Thailand’s 1997 constitution. They said the constitution should supercede the Telecommunications Act, which was enacted under an authoritarian era, and when people’s right to free expression was officially curtailed.

Other critics also say the charges against Chanthorn are suspicious given that there are numerous other community radio stations operating without licenses that have nonetheless been allowed to continue operating. Thailand’s English-language daily, “Bangkok Post” in its 2 November edition quoted the community broadcaster as suggesting that case against him actually stems from his attempts to block vested interests from exploiting flood-relief budgets for Ang Thong.

Chanthorn said government officials had also tried to charge him with undermining national security and defamation, but police and public prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges.

The community radio operator will testify in his own defense on 3 November. Other witnesses are scheduled to testify until 9 November at the Ang Thong court. Expected to come to his defense are, among others, a mass communication lecturer, community radio and media reform advocates, a lawyer and a senator.

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