New York Times censored again as Thailand marks birthday of fragile king

Workers installing a new portrait of the King. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's edition of the International New York Times appeared on Friday (Dec 4) with a blank space instead of a story on Thai royal wealth after the newspaper's Bangkok printer decided it was too "sensitive" to run.

It was the second time this week that Eastern Printing PCL had censored the newspaper.

The most recent incident came on the eve of celebrations to mark the 88th birthday of the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose fragile health is a source of national anxiety.

He is in hospital in Bangkok and has not appeared in public since Sep 1.

Criticism of Thailand's monarchy is outlawed by draconian lese majeste laws that provide for jail sentences of up to 15 years for each perceived insult to the monarchy.

The story excised from Friday's (Dec 4) edition called for greater transparency at the Crown Property Bureau, the secretive agency that controls the monarchy's institutional assets, worth tens of billions of dollars.

It was replaced by a blank space that carried the message:"The article in this space was removed by our printer in Thailand. The International New York Times and its editorial staff had no role in its removal."

A story on Tuesday (Dec 1) on Thailand's moribund economy, which referenced King Bhumibol's frail health, was also replaced with the same message.

Both stories were accessible in Thailand via the newspaper's website and were widely circulated.

Eastern Printing PCL decided not to print the stories for fear of upsetting advertisers or shareholders, or attracting punitive lawsuits, company chairman Yuth Chinsupakul told Reuters. "The printing press is liable and can be sued," he said, adding that the company would not print stories deemed"sensitive to the current situation."

In September, the company declined to produce the entire newspaper rather than print a story that later appeared online under the headline, "With King in Declining Health, Future of Monarchy in Thailand Is Uncertain."

Yuth Chinsupakul denied the company had come under pressure from Thailand's junta, which seized power in May 2014 and has doled out record jail sentences of up to 60 years for lese majeste offences.

"We are just doing our duty as good citizens," he said. "We don't want to risk our public company with the issues foreigners are writing about. That's all there is to it."

In a statement, The New York Times said, "This second incident in a week clearly demonstrates the regrettable lack of press freedom in the country. "Readers in Thailand do not have full and open access to journalism, a fundamental right that should be afforded to all citizens."

Eastern Printing PCL's actions underscored an "all-pervasive culture of fear" around the reporting of Thailand's monarchy, said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The printer is effectively doing the government's censorship for them," he said.

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