BANGKOK – Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha warned Wednesday that the BBC could be prosecuted if an online report published by its Thai-language service about the country’s new king is found to have violated the law safeguarding the monarchy’s reputation.
BBC-Thai, a relative newcomer among the services of the British Broadcasting Corp., caused a stir when it published a profile of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun touching on controversial aspects of his background. The story included details of his private life and other material that cannot be published by Thai news media without legal risk.
Thailand has a strict lese majeste law against insulting the monarchy that carries a penalty of three to 15 years in prison. No charges have been filed against the BBC yet.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said that because “a news agency has a branch in Thailand staffed with Thai reporters, if they violate Thai laws, they have to be prosecuted. Just like when we go to other countries and violate their laws, we are also prosecuted.”
“It doesn’t matter whether they are part of the press or not, a crime is a crime,” Prayuth told reporters. “So please be careful with what you do. Don’t violate other people’s personal lives to the point of causing disorder and confusion.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan made the same point. “Whatever is illegal will be processed accordingly, no exceptions,” he said.
In the days after the story was published on Friday – one day after Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne – the BBC’s office in Thailand received multiple visits from the army and police. The BBC shut the office this week, but continues to broadcast and publish on its website and on Facebook, although some readers said they found the link to the article about Vajiralongkorn now blocked in Thailand.
BBC said in a statement that its Thai-language service “was established to bring impartial, independent, and accurate news to a country where the media faces restrictions, and we are confident that this article adheres to the BBC’s editorial principles.”
The article sparked outrage among some Thai royalists, with social media groups vigorously criticizing the BBC. The Facebook group “V for Thailand” posted the BBC’s Bangkok phone number on its Facebook page, encouraging its followers to call and harass people who work at the news service.
Thai police arrested a student on Saturday for sharing a link to the BBC article on Facebook, releasing him on bail the next day. It was the first arrest under the lese majeste law since Vajiralongkorn became king.
It also appeared to be the first lese majeste case involving material produced by a respected mainstream media outlet, although previous cases have involved content from several foreign tabloids. Mainstream media have had stories about the Thai monarchy censored, by blocking their websites and the voluntary stopping of distribution of editions of magazines and newspapers in Thailand, including The Economist and The International New York Times.
Critics of the lese majeste law, known as Article 112, say it is used to silence political dissidents. The military regime that took power in a 2014 coup has especially cracked down on commentary on the internet.