In December 2001, the Thai Journalists Association boycotted the "Reform and Improve the Media" seminary organised by the government. According to the daily The Nation, this seminary was an "intimidating session of self-criticism" whose only goal was to interfere with content published by newspapers. This incident shed light on the tensions between the private press and the government of the populist Thaksin Shinawatra. The Prime Minister and those close to power have regularly interfered with public media and attempted to neutralise critics. According to many journalists, officials regularly apply pressure to influence the content of articles, especially those dealing with internal politics. Companies belonging to the Shin Corporations group, founded by Thaksin Shinawatra, have several times used their advertisements as blackmail. Eight months after Shinawatra took power, a local journalists’ association had already recorded fourteen cases of the government’s direct intervention.
The Thai written press, mostly private, is nevertheless one of the freest in South-East Asia and fulfils its role in the balance of power. Investigations published in the press revealed a corruption affair involving the former government’s Interior Minister. However, three quarters of the country’s radio and television stations belong to the State, especially to the army.
Four journalists killed
On the morning of 10 April 2001, Withayut Sangsopit, businessman and presenter of a program on Fourth Army Radio, was shot by five bullets from a 9mm pistol in Surat Thani (south of the country). According to a police officer questioned by the local correspondent of the Bangkok Post, two or three unidentified assailants shot the 56-year old journalist in front of the radio station’s offices. Nobody has claimed responsibility, and police think that Mr. Sangsophit’s death could be linked to his professional activity at the radio station. In his very popular program, "Up to Date with the World", Mr. Sangsopit recently denounced the involvement of local authorities in financial irregularities in the procurement of a new rubbish dump by the municipality. Mr. Sangsopit, a former correspondent with the newspaper Bangkok Daily News in Surat Thani, had been under police protection for more than three months after receiving death threats. Anonymous phone calls threatened him with reprisals if he did not stop denouncing corruption among the authorities. In September 1999, a bomb was found in front of the radio station. About a month later, a mixture of excrement and asphalt was thrown at the windows of his company. On 23 April, it was learned that police arrested two suspects in possession of 9mm pistols. One of them, Kosol Ohthong, a city councilman implicated by Mr. Sangsopit in a corruption scandal, was believed to have ordered the murder.
A conflict among journalists in the city of Mukdahan (northeast of the country) ended with the death of four reporters. On 18 November, Suchart Chanchanawiwat, managing editor of the local biweekly Chao Mukdahan (People of Mukdahan), Setha Sareerawat, reporter with the newspaper Naew Na and Channel 3 television, and Somboon Saenwiset, correspondent with the newspaper Daily News, were murdered by Paibul Boontod, also a journalist, in Mukdahan. Three other journalists and a lawyer were wounded. This incident occurred in a restaurant where representatives of two journalists’ groups in conflict were trying to resolve their disagreements. Paibul Boontod burst into the restaurant and fired his gun at his fellow reporters, then shot himself in the head with the last bullet. Paibul Boontod, correspondent with the newspaper Thairath and president of the Journalists’ Association of this province on the border with Vietnam, had been implicated in several articles published in Chao Mukdahan in bribery and embezzlement affairs involving the Association’s management. One police officer said that tracts had circulated the week before this incident where each of the two groups of journalists accused the other. Reporters without Borders considers that Suchart Chanchanawiwat was killed for his writings.
A journalist threatened
Throughout the year 2001, Amnat Jongyotying, publisher and editor-in-chief of the biweekly Phak Nua Raiwan published in Chiang Mai (north of the country), received death threats. Since the unsuccessful murder attempt against him on 18 April 2000, Jongyotying always wears a bullet-proof vest and travels with an armed journalist. His newspaper continues to publish articles on the influence of the local mafia on local political leaders and police officers. On the journalist’s request, police provide protection in front of the offices of Phak Nua Raiwan.
Pressure and obstruction
One day before the lower house of Parliament confirmed the new Prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, in February 2001, twenty-three journalists and anchors of iTV were laid off by management who recently took the control of the TV station. Most of the fired journalists had expressed their criticism of the buyout of the channel, which was taken over by the Shin Corporations group, founded by Thaksin Shinawatra and currently owned by his son. Some of the journalists were involved in the creation of a union at the TV station to defend an independent editorial policy. According to management, seven journalists were fired because they "damaged the station’s reputation" by openly criticising the station’s buyout by the new Prime Minister. Others were laid off because of internal restructuring. After Thaksin Shinawatra, leader of Thai Rak Thai party, won the general elections in January, some journalists began denouncing pressures and threats from iTV management. Piya Malakul na Ayutthaya, iTV’s vice chairman in charge of news operations, was removed from the editorial board after he criticised the "politicisation in favour of the owner and candidate". In June 2000, Thepchai Yong, a news editor known for his independence, had been removed from his post after Shin Corporations bought a majority stake in the station. During the electoral campaign, Taksin Shinawatra’s group also cancelled its advertisements with the daily Prachachart Turakij after the newspaper published news about illegal financial transactions made by the candidate. The Prime Minister always denied any interference with the television station’s editorial policy. On 7 February, he said, "he knew nothing about what when on at iTV," that he had sold to his son, Panthongtae Shinawatra.
On 8 August, two Thai-language dailies, Thairath and Krungthep Turakij, received a direct warning from a police officer for being "irresponsible and dangerous to society." The officer who wrote the letter referred to article 36 of the 1941 Publications Law, which is, according to journalists’ associations, still in force even though it goes against the 1997 Constitution. These newspapers were criticised for publishing a translation of a dispatch from the Reuters
news agency about a decision of the Constitutional Court in favour of the Prime Minister, after accusations of "fraudulent management" were made against him. Both newspapers reacted violently to these letters. The publisher of Krungthep Turakij declared that this was an "act worthy of a dictatorship". The press council condemned the police action and asked the two newspapers to file suit.
On 22 August, the television presenter Jermsak Phinthong announced that his political program would no longer be broadcast on the public television Channel 11. In early August, a program he presented on Channel 9 had also been cancelled. Phinthong denounced a sanction against his talk shows where points of view critical to the government are sometimes presented. The presenter, also an independent senator elected in 2000, had invited two specialists in constitutional law to comment a decision made by the Constitutional Court in favour of the Prime Minister. Channel 11 management said that Jermsak Phinthong did not have a "presenter’s licence", although his program had been broadcast for ten years. This decision also followed a directive by the Thai army, which owns dozens of radio and television stations, asking journalists to not make "political comments".
In October, journalists with the daily The Nation revealed that people close to the Prime Minister offered their newspaper an advertising contract of more than one million euros in exchange for more favourable coverage of government policies. This newspaper is the most critical of all national newspapers to Thaksin Shinawatra’s policies. Shin Corporations, founded by the Prime Minister, had been boycotting advertising in The Nation for six months.
On 4 October, Tun Sirikulpiphat, publisher and editor of the Thai-language newspaper The Manager’s Daily, was sentenced by a Bangkok court to three months in jail for "slandering" Chuan Leekpai, a former Prime Minister, and Surin Pitsuwan and Sukhumbhand Paribatra, two members of the previous government. This conviction followed the publication of an article, in January 2000, about the supposed involvement of these three politicians in hostage-takings by pro-democratic Burmese students at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok and in a Thai hospital. The court ordered the journalist to publish its decision in five newspapers. Tun Sirikulpiphat had to pay bail of more than 7,000 euros to stay out of jail. He decided to appeal.
On 9 October, Purachai Piemsombun, Minister of the Interior, criticised foreign media who expressed doubts about the true objectives of the government campaign against alcoholism and drugs. He attacked Time magazine, which suggested that his crusade to close nightclubs, bars and karaokes at 2 a.m. had no other goal than to increase the popularity of the government. He also accused foreign media of being "instruments of great capitalism" which wanted to take control of the country.