28 November 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
A judge in Thailand’s civil court on 24 November held that the Kingdom’s prime minister is a public figure whose performance in office can be fairly scrutinized by the press. In this light, the judge amended a gag order on a bitter critic of Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, freeing the media personality to continue raising questions about corruption and conflict of interest in the Thaksin administration.
Although the court maintained that Thaksin’s record before he became prime minister should be allowed some protection from the criticisms of media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, the amended gag order effectively allows Thaksin’s staunchest critic to continue his mounting accusations against the Thai leader.
In recent months, Thaksin has been seeking to silence Sondhi, a media entrepreneur with investments in a daily newspaper, a news website, and a satellite cable network, and who used to have his own political talk show on a government TV station. Using these platforms, Sondhi in recent months has maintained a steady and unrelenting attack on the Prime Minister, his family, and their businesses. He has accused Thaksin of corruption, his family of using government resources, and their businesses of profiting from the prime minister’s term in office.
For his tirades against Thaksin, Sondhi has seen his TV show pulled from the government station, and he and his affiliated media companies have been slapped with five different cases for defamation. The combined amount of damages sought by the plaintiff in these cases was amount to B 2 billion (US$50 million). Thaksin’s allies in parliament have threatened to bring down the critic’s websites and Thailand’s top military officers have also stepped into the fray, saying Sondhi should quiet down as he was supposedly also dragging the King’s name into controversy. A deputy commander of a police district sued the media personality for lese majeste—of insulting the monarchy—a crime punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. Earlier Thaksin’s lawyers also succeeded in temporarily getting a court on November17 to place a gag order on Sondhi, effectively keeping him from criticizing the Prime Minister pending the resolution of all the cases lodged against him.
But the latest developments all tended to strengthen Sondhi, who has in recent weeks taken his cancelled talk show on the road. Separate from the partial lifting of the gag order, a provincial court on 24 November dismissed the charges of lese majeste. Meanwhile, a civil court on the same day also rescinded an earlier decision barring Sondhi from distributing copies of all his road shows over the Internet and in VCD format.
Sondhi’s “mobile talk show” has won ardent following among government critics, gaining an estimated attendance of 15,000 to 20,000 every Friday in Bangkok’s Lumphini Park.