Aura of fear pervades Thai media

Aura of fear pervades Thai media - IHT, October 5, 2005
...Thailand once boasted of having one of the liveliest and freest media in Asia. A Constitution introduced in 1997 set out to protect the public's right to know from attempts to interfere with the press by power-hungry generals.
But the election of Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon, in 2001 has presented the Thai media with challenge. In addition to a mass electoral base and a dominance of Parliament that leaves opposition parties little leeway to shape legislation, Thaksin has powerful allies in business. Some say he appears all too willing to deploy his political, financial and legal weapons against the more independent-minded of the Thai press.
"There is now a real sense of fear," Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch said...
For the moment, however, Sondhi remains defiant. He continues to broadcast his talk show live on the Internet and satellite television from a Bangkok university auditorium that draws audiences that spill out into surrounding grounds.
"And if you criticize Thaksin," he adds, "your newspaper sells out on the newsstands."


[2015 note: Like many older newspaper articles that detailed the roots of the Thai political crisis--Thaksin's quest for absolute power--the full version of this article can no longer be found online.]

Aura of fear pervades Thai media
By Nick Cumming-Bruce International Herald Tribune
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2005

BANGKOK If Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had hoped, as critics suggested, to scare Thailand's journalists by filing libel lawsuits that seek more than $12 million in damages from a media group owner and his partner, he has at least partially succeeded.

Senior newspaper editors and publishers plan to gather in a Bangkok hotel Thursday for an emergency meeting called by Thailand's Press Council to discuss the plight of the media under a government they fear is determined to crush their independence and, in the process, change the country's political landscape.

The libel actions prompting this concern occurred Friday. Thaksin filed a criminal defamation suit against Sondhi Limthongkul, owner of the Manager publishing group, and Sarocha Pornudomsak, his co-host on a recently terminated television talk show. A civil suit seeks damages of 500 million baht, or $12.1 million.

The lawsuit alleges that Sondhi and Sarocha defamed the prime minister by accusing him of disloyalty to the monarchy, a highly sensitive subject here. As a result, the prime minister's had a negative impact on his family, his dignity and his personal life were negatively affected, the suit claims.

Also named in the suit were Sondhi's company, Thaiday Dot Com, the producer of the talk show and publisher of the English-language newspaper ThaiDay, a daily distributed in Thailand with the International Herald Tribune.

Thailand once boasted of having one of the liveliest and freest media in Asia. A Constitution introduced in 1997 set out to protect the public's right to know from attempts to interfere with the press by power-hungry generals.

But the election of Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon, in 2001 has presented the Thai media with challenge. In addition to a mass electoral base and a dominance of Parliament that leaves opposition parties little leeway to shape legislation, Thaksin has powerful allies in business. Some say he appears all too willing to deploy his political, financial and legal weapons against the more independent-minded of the Thai press.

"There is now a real sense of fear," Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch said.

A government spokesman declined to comment Wednesday on the assertions of the prime minister's critics or on the lawsuits, saying they were filed by Thaksin, not the government.

Thailand's radio and television channels, most of them directly or indirectly controlled by the government, offer audiences little independent or critical comment. The worry now, media analysts say, is that Thaksin or people sympathetic to him are making a concerted push to gain control of the print media as well.

Emergency powers introduced by Thaksin in August in response to a bloody insurgency in Thailand's southern provinces, which are mainly Muslim, have underscored the more difficult political environment. The powers give the government extensive latitude to censor reporting it considers a threat to national security.

Particularly worrying to media groups is the financial pressure brought to bear in recent weeks, not least through other libel actions. In July, court proceedings were started in a criminal defamation suit brought by a telecommunications company owned by Thaksin's family against Supinya Klangnarong, a media reform activist. Her offense was a newspaper article that said the company, Shin Corp., had profited handsomely since Thaksin became prime minister. For that she also faces a civil action seeking damages for 400 million baht.

July also saw Matichon, Thailand's most respected newspaper and magazine publishing group, slapped with two defamation suits seeking damages totaling 15 billion baht by Picnic Energy. It was the largest suit ever brought against a Thai media company, the South East Asian Press Alliance said. The company was set up by the deputy commerce minister, Suriya Larpwisuthisin, who resigned from the government in July when members of his family who were running the company were charged with fraud.

In addition, Matichon faced a hostile takeover bid last month by GMM Grammy, Thailand's biggest entertainment conglomerate, led by Paiboon Damrongchaitham, a longtime associate of the prime minister's who has acted for him in other business dealings. Paiboon bid at the same time to take control of Bangkok Post, Thailand's largest-circulation English-language daily. Thaksin denied having had anything to do with the Bangkok Post transaction, which fell through when Paiboon backed off in the face of a storm of public opposition, but the prime minister's denials did little to reassure or persuade his critics.

"We don't know who exactly is maneuvering, but we see a political move to silence the media," said Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, a professor of mass communications at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok. Not surprisingly, Thaksin's libel action against Sondhi and Sarocha Pornudomsak is seen in similar light.

It is part of what Sunai, of Human Rights Watch, calls a trend in Thai politics to try to intimidate critics by the threat of ruinous damages, but it also breaks new ground. The case is thought to be the first ever brought by a serving Thai prime minister on a political, rather than a purely personal, issue.

The fact that Thaksin is not suing the owners of the television channel that aired the talk show raises suspicions that the case is politically motivated, Sunai said. Thaksin's most serious allegation is that Sondhi defamed him by accusing him of disloyalty to the monarchy, an almost sacred institution whose incumbent, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is widely revered as the father and moral guide of the nation.

The sensitivity of the issue has led many in the news media to treat it with circumspection. Sondhi, in his talk show and his publications, has pursued it with vigor.

"I'm not surprised he sued me because he cannot answer the questions I address to the public," Sondhi said in an interview. "I'm the only media man who dares to stand up to him, and that he hates."

That was not always the case. In the first few years of Thaksin's premiership Sondhi was an outspoken supporter. Media analysts say Thaksin backed Sondhi financially after Sondhi was forced into bankruptcy during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In recent months, however, Sondhi has become among Thaksin's sternest critics and says he is now locked in "all-out war" with the prime minister.

His opinion of Thaksin changed, he said, when he started to see the prime minister's "true colors."

Sophon Ongkara, a senior editor at the English-language newspaper The Nation, said that by taking legal action, Thaksin was "killing two birds with one stone."

"Thaksin wants to get even with Sondhi and can use this case as a warning to the media that he won't be idle if he is strongly criticized," he said.

For the moment, however, Sondhi remains defiant. He continues to broadcast his talk show live on the Internet and satellite television from a Bangkok university auditorium that draws audiences that spill out into surrounding grounds.

"And if you criticize Thaksin," he adds, "your newspaper sells out on the newsstands."
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