The prime minister, who is also a press and telecommunications magnate, cannot stand criticism. The independent press groups have tried to resist, but the political and economic pressure is pervasive. Foreign correspondents have also been in the sights of this government, which is becoming more and more tolerant towards the region’s dictatorships.
The Thai media have been weakened by the economic crisis since 1997 and have become vulnerable to intimidation and economic pressure, all the more so as politicians - starting with the prime minister - directly or indirectly control many media. Thaksin Shinawatra, the "Asian Berlusconi," has direct authority over the state-owned TV stations while his family controls the other broadcast TV channels. He has never tried to resolve this conflict of interest that threatens press diversity in Thailand. The army also has a slice of the news media: two TV channels and 120 of the 500 radio stations. The armed forces commander is the prime minister’s cousin.
In January 2003, the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) criticised the spread of self-censorship as well as the "sophisticated and subversive means" used by the authorities to control the media. It warned of the danger that most of the media could turn into propaganda mouthpieces of the Thaksin government. Human rights activists and government opponents on 4 February called on journalists to overcome the "fear syndrome" imposed by the populist government. A TJA spokesman said the media were suffering from "lethargy."
In May, the president of the National Human Rights Commission chimed in: "I think the members of the government lack tolerance... I am concerned." The prime minister, for his part, put both his own media and the state media at his government’s service. As he had said after his election, he would tolerate only "constructive criticism." Pressure was put on unruly journalists. Reacting to this deterioration, King Bhumibol Adulyadej called the prime minister to order in December: "You should read the journalists and let them write," he said.
Community radio stations continued to develop in 2003. In January, the prime minister promised 400 local governments that they would each be assigned a community radio station. These new stations would join the 140 existing community stations, many of which are currently operating illegally. The authorities undertook to recognise them. The government also wanted to control the assignment of frequencies and general programme content by means of a special committee attached to the public relation’s department.
Some journalists said the authorities mistrusted the new local radio stations and feared they would give voice to the grievances of the poor about the government. But community radio presenters, most of whom are local elected officials, insisted the programmes dealt mainly with the rural population’s daily concerns.
Two journalists killed
Two journalists were murdered in 2003. But at the end of the year it was impossible to say if their deaths were linked to their work.
Surapong Ritthi was gunned down on 11 February 2003 in a grocery story on the southern tourist island of Phuket (near the famous Patong beach). The gunman fled leaving him to die on the spot. Aged 43, he wrote for the country’s biggest Thai-language daily, Thai Rath, and the regional newspaper Siang Tai, and he worked for the independent TV station Channel 3 in the Phuket area. According to the local police chief. Col. Chalit Thinthani, Surapong knew about sensitive local issues and had written about illegal entertainment and gambling. He had recently written about sex shows in a Patong Beach go-go bar, following which the police closed the bar down. But the police chief did not rule out a personal quarrel as the motive for the crime.
Manok Maneechan, a reporter for the TV station Channel 3 and editor of the local Weekly Pattaya, was gunned down in Pattaya, in the eastern province of Chonburi, on the night of 27 June. He left a party given by a local cable TV company at around 2 a.m. and was walking towards his pickup with a friend when four individuals on motorcycles drew up and fired at him 11 times. Hit in the head, chest and legs, he died instantly. His killers left immediately and were never caught. There were conflicting theories about the motive. Police investigators were inclined to think it was the result of a personal dispute. But the television network ITV blamed it on Manok’s reporting about local criminals. Chonburi province is known for its organised crime and corruption.
Harassment and obstruction
On 19 February 2003, about 20 parliamentarians belonging to the ruling Thai Rak Thai party presented a bill for the creation of a media council to control Thailand’s TV and radio stations. With 23 members, the council would be tasked with drawing up a broadcasting code and with sanctioning TV and radio stations that failed to comply. The proposed sanctions included periods of probation, temporary closure and, for very serious or repeated offences, permanent closure and even imprisonment.
The parliamentarians withdrew the bill a week later after it drew a hail of criticism from the entire broadcasting sector. Opposition parliamentarians said it violated constitution provisions protecting press freedom since 1997. Journalists’ associations viewed it as a new government attempt to control the news media. Nonetheless, leaders of the major news media announced on 12 March that they would soon submit a similar bill to parliament. Jamnan Siritan, the head of a federation of radio and TV professionals, said they wanted a council made up of media professionals so that they would control their own sector.
The radio station Independent News Network (INN) was abruptly told to stop broadcasting on 1 March. The orders came from the army, the holder of the station’s licence. The station said the army objected to its live phone-in programme "Ruam Duay Chauay Kan" in which the government and army had been criticised on the air in recent weeks. On 13 February, the station had also re-broadcast an interview with parliamentarian Purachai Piumsombum criticising the prime minister. Lt. Gen. Charnvit Srithammavut, who is in charge of the army’s radio frequencies, said INN had no right to broadcast such "defamatory" comments. He also maintained that the station’s licence was up for renewal.
The military authorities said they wanted to recover half of the air-time ceded to INN so that they could broadcast their own programmes, mainly about the government, monarchy and army. INN would be able to resume broadcasting for 12 hours a day instead of 24, they said. But INN manager Somchai Sawaengkram insisted that the station’s contract did not expire until February 2004. With listeners’ support, he called for the lifting of the ban. INN’s programmes meanwhile continued to be broadcast on another frequency (FM 99.5) as well as on the station’s website. The army backed down after two days of negotiations. INN’s contract was renewed for a year on 3 March, while the proposal for sharing airtime with the army was dropped. The station resumed broadcasting on its usual frequency the next day. Some journalists speculated that the temporary ban had been prompted by financial wrangling between the army and the station.
Irked by some journalists’ questions about his government’s very violent anti-drug campaign, the prime minister announced during the week of 3 March that he would virtually stop giving interviews. He said he would only answer questions about his administration and would not discuss political matters. Regardless of their subject, interviews would henceforth only be permitted at specific moments in the week, and the questions would have to be sent to his staff in advance. Journalists’ associations were outraged by this "attack on access to information" and sent the prime minister a formal letter on 5 March in which they urged him to respect press rights and freedom. They also asked him to spare them his discourteous remarks, alluding to his charge that some journalists treated political issues irresponsibly.
In an opinion poll published a few days later, 65 per cent were opposed to the prime minister’s position, while 43 per cent advised him to stay calm in interviews with journalists and to reflect before answering questions. The prime minister finally agreed to receive a delegation of 50 journalists on 10 March. At the end of the talks, he announced that he would again give interviews on the condition that journalists would not ask questions based on "rumours." He recognised that his decision not to give interviews had been taken while irritated about a question on the possibility of a UN investigation into his government’s aggressive anti-drug campaign in which about 1,500 people died. Justice minister Pongthep Thepkanchana accused the media on 10 March of failing to make a clear distinction between police executions carried out during the anti-drug campaign and murders by drug trafficking gangs carried out to silence some of their members.
The daily The Nation reported on 24 April that the government was planning to hold meetings in rural areas with local news media with the stated aim of promoting a better mutual understanding and tell them about new policies. An academic, Ubonrat Siriyuwasak, saw this as part of the government’s efforts to control the press and said it complemented its attempts to bring the news media in the capital into line.
A number of independent news media and journalists’ organisations staged a silent demonstration in Bangkok on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May to protest against the political and legal obstacles to free expression and access to information in Thailand. The Thai Journalists Association said the right to practice investigative journalism should be recognized as an essential component of press freedom.
A court in Pattaya (southeast of the capital) on 30 September gave Bangkok-based British freelance journalist Andrew Drummond a two-month suspended sentence and fined him 20,000 bahts (more than 400 euros) as a result of a libel suit brought by Scottish bar-owner Jimmy Lumsden over a report in the daily Bangkok Post accusing him of illegal activity. Known for his reporting for the British tabloid press, Drummond was threatened by police with expulsion as he left the court although his sentence did not include deportation. Lumsden, who had brought two lawsuits against Drummond, recognised during the trial that he gave large sums of money to the police.
A committee on social issues chaired by deputy prime minister Chaturon Chaisaeng proposed to the government in October that radio and TV stations should be forced to broadcast at least 90 minutes of programming for "children, young people and families" every day between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. He said there was a need to "support family life and offer positive programmes for children." TV channel owners called it a politically-motivated proposal aimed at limiting news programmes. Some analysts said it would lead to a big loss in advertising revenue. The authorities had already asked TV programmers to limit scenes of violence and sex in August. The government’s public relations department set up a committee to monitor programme content on six national TV channels and a department spokesman told the press that programmers were expected to practice "self-censorship."
The family of transport minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit on 12 November acquired a large slice of shares in the Nation Multimedia Group, which includes the independent daily The Nation. Although the number of shares were reportedly not enough to give the minister a say in the newspaper’s editorial policies, some of the group’s representatives and press freedom activists voiced concern and called for vigilance.
An associate of former government spokesman Sita Divari publicly threatened a journalist with the daily Matichon on 12 December, accusing him of defaming Sita by reporting inaccurate information. "If it hadn’t been a journalist, I would have hit him," the associate said.