Government interference with the media became more and more subtle and sophisticated during 2002, the Thai Journalists Association said in its annual review. It accused the prime minister of being insincere when he said he would respect press freedom. At the beginning of the year, meddling and censorship increased. After a row with the Hong Kong based magazine Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), the police the banned an issue of the British weekly The Economist containing a survey on Thailand.
The army is everywhere on the media scene, controlling more than 120 radio and two TV stations. In December, the army chief told the press he would not allow the National Broadcasting Commission to reassign frequencies, saying the army needed to control "media that are crucial to national security." Some 140 community radio stations, which formed a federation in October, have trouble obtaining frequencies and their legal status remains very shaky.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told FEER in an interview that he was the victim of a plot and that someone was trying to provoke an ideological clash between him and the people by using the monarchy.
The media groups publishing The Nation and the Bangkok Post hit back by deploring the regime’s paranoia and government pressure on the media. On 11 March, more than 1,000 journalists sent a petition to parliament asking it to defend press freedom and accusing the government of harassing them and interfering with news content.
Pressure and obstruction
Gen. Tritot Ronnarittivichai, head of monitoring distribution of publications, ordered the banning and seizure of the latest issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) magazine on 7 January 2002, saying that its issue dated 10 January contained an article that could disturb public order and public morality and which violated the 1941 Publishing Act. Copies of the magazine were seized and the prime minister announced at the same time that legal experts were seeing whether it could be sued for libel over an article about relations between him and the king, headed "Listless Days"
He said foreign publications attacked the government because it refused to privatise state firms and sell them off cheaply to foreigners. The airline Thai International banned FEER from all its flights on 5 January.
The daily political talk show "Lok Yam Chao" (The World This Morning) on the public radio station FM 99.5 was banned on 10 January after its presenter, Somkiat, read extracts from the offending FEER article on the air. The programme had been going for more than 20 years on a network run by the public relations ministry. Somkiat said the government had ordered the ban.
The government postponed on 23 January the opening of the Centre to Improve Public Understanding, whose job would be to monitor the editorial content of most of the 500 radio and two TV stations controlled by the government or the army. It would be headed by the secretary-general of the government.
The announcement a few days earlier that it was being set up had sparked fierce criticism by the opposition and journalists’ associations, which accused the prime minister of taking over the news put out by the public media. "The government doesn’t have the right to say what news is good or bad for the public," said Thai Journalists Association secretary-general Chavarong Limpattamapanee.
Faced with this outcry, the government said it would rename the body the Information Service Centre for Public Interests and would include journalists and academics. But it would still have the job of ensuring the public media was as "beneficial" as possible to the population and would especially monitor reporting of government policies.
Lt.Gen. Hemaraj Thareethai, head of the immigration police, confirmed on 21 February the existence of a black-list of 46 undesirable foreigners in Thailand who risked deportation for being supposed threats to national security. The list, to be approved by the interior minister, included US journalist Shawn Crispin and British journalist Rodney Tasker, the local FEER bureau chief, as well as FEER’s managing editor and a senior editor working at its main office in Hong Kong. The authorities put them on the list because of the allegedly insulting article the FEER printed in January.
The two journalists were officially notified on 22 February that their visas had been cancelled and were ordered to leave the country. Tasker, who had lived in Bangkok for the past 20 years, said the letter he received called him "a threat to social stability." On 26 February, they appealed against the decision, automatically putting off their deportation until 28 March. Police told the media that the government was waiting for the journalists and the magazine to apologise, but the Thai daily press accused the government of taking a dictatorial decision.
On 27 February, the prime minister said he would not yield to pressure, but the next day, the interior minister said he wanted a peaceful end to the dispute. On 4 March, the FEER management formally apologised in a letter to the president of parliament, saying the magazine had "never intended to write or generate any adverse commentary " about the country’s "highest institution" [the monarchy] and that it "most sincerely" apologised.
On 7 March, an interior ministry official said Crispin and Tasker could stay in Thailand until their visas duly expired. The immigration commission said it had taken into account that the journalists’ appeal was reasonable and that the magazine had apologised.
A police official said on 1 March that the latest issue of the British magazine The Economist was being examined because it contained a survey on Thailand, including the monarchy. The magazine was not distributed to news-stands as it usually was. Two days later, police said the content had been found to be unsuitable and FEER decided not to distribute the issue in Thailand
Former justice minister Chalerm Yoobamrung announced in March the launching of a monthly magazine to get revenge on the media by focusing on alleged media corruption and journalists’ private lives. The ex-minister had been angered by press reports about his son fleeing abroad to escape a murder charge. The magazine closed n November when it ran out of money.
On 5 March, Gen. Akkaradej Sasiprapa, an adviser to vice-premier and defence minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, ordered Smart Bomb, the firm running the army-owned radio station FM 90.5, to stop broadcasting the eight hours of news programmes put together by the Nation Multimedia Group. The vice-premier said they contained unfair criticism of the government.
A few days earlier, the station had broadcast an interview with Prasong Soonsiri, a fierce critic of the prime minister who had slammed the government’s handling of the row with the FEER. The programme went out simultaneously on the cable TV channel UBC 8 (Nation TV), but the interview was curtailed for supposedly technical problems. The Nation Multimedia Group said on 6 March it was suspending its news programmes on UBC 8 until they were "free of interference, direct or indirect."
The government wrote on 6 March to the bank managers of Pana Janviroj, editor of the daily The Nation, asking for details of his account as part of an investigation of money-laundering. Such information was also requested about more than 30 other senior figures and journalists of the Nation Multimedia Group. The government denied having anything to do with the move. Lawyers for the group said they wanted to end to such harassment by legal means.
On 13 March, the country’s Administrative Court, which deals with disputes between government bodies and citizens, ordered a halt to the Anti Money-Laundering Office (AMLO) investigation, which the journalists’ lawyer said violated basic constitutional rights. Three days later, in his weekly address to the nation, the prime minister apologised for the bank enquiries and reiterated that the government had nothing to do with them, despite the fact that he had direct authority over the AMLO. Two days after that, on 18 March, a commission of enquiry set up by the prime minister declared that the government had nothing to do with the affair. The head of the AMLO and his deputy were accused of launching the enquiry on their own initiative.
Warin Poonsiriwong, owner of the Thai-language paper Naew Na, told a senate enquiry on 12 March that the prime minister had asked him during a game of golf to sack one of his columnists, Prasong Soonsiri, because of his criticism of the government. He said he had also been approached by a member of the Thai Rak Thai ruling party who offered to drop nine government libel lawsuits against the paper if he would sack the journalist. Poonsiriwong said he refused. Several firms close to the government subsequently cancelled advertising in the paper.
Jiraphong Tempium, managing editor of the daily Naew Na, was summoned on 6 June to police headquarters in Bangkok after the National Counter-Corruption Commission filed a complaint against him for publishing secret information by reporting the results of a corruption investigation into the army’s helicopter maintenance budget a day before the matter was due to be discussed in parliament. The journalist denied the accusations and refused to reveal his sources. He was freed on bail of nearly $500.
The army announced on 26 June it would reply in the press to recent articles in the Burmese media attacking Thais and the monarchy. Defence ministry spokesman Surapan Poomkaew said the government’s duty was to protect the throne.
Two days later, the government declared Burmese journalists Maung Maung, editor of the official newspaper New Light of Myanmar, and Ma Tin Win, who wrote allegedly insulting articles about the monarchy, to be persona non grata in Thailand.
At the end of June, Khin Maung Soe, a reporter with the Burmese section of Radio Free Asia, was interrogated by police near the frontier with Burma while investigating a report that Thai police raped a Burmese refugee woman.
The National Security Council banned journalists from refugee camps along the Burmese border on 16 July. The authorities accused the press of criticising how they were being run and contributing to tension between the two countries by reporting the refugees’ complaints about the Burmese regime. The government denied the measure was aimed at soothing relations with Burma.
Sein Win, an official of the Network Media Group, which is linked with Burmese dissidents, was arrested in Bangkok on 27 July for illegally entering the country. He was freed on 31 July at Mae Sot after threats to send him to Burma.
On 26 September, the Labour Court in Bangkok ordered the TV station ITV, which belongs to the prime minister’s family, to rehire 19 journalists sacked in February 2001 for trying to form an association to denounce political interference in coverage of the election campaign. The station was also ordered to pay their salaries since their dismissal. ITV refused to rehire them and said it would appeal against the decision.
The National Press Council, the Thai Journalists’ Association and the Confederation of Thai Journalists met in Bangkok on 8 October to try to put a stop to the many libel suits filed against journalists by politicians and government officials. Some of the complaints the three bodies said were unjustified would incur prison terms for the journalists and editors targeted. In a joint statement, they called once more for amendment of the 1941 Printing Act, saying it was the main obstacle to press freedom in Thailand.
The Nation reported on 31 October that the transmitter of the community radio station in Angthong had been seized by the posts and telecommunications ministry for "broadcasting illegally." The station, set up in May by villagers in the Chaiyo district, had been backed by the government’s Social Investment Fund. The Forum Asia organisation said the closure contradicted the government’s decision in August to allow community radio stations even though their legal status was ill-defined. Article 40 of the national constitution says broadcasting frequencies are "national communication resources for public interest."
Transmission of Parliament Radio was cut for one minute on 14 November while an opposition member asked the agriculture minister an embarrassing question. Another opposition MP accused an aide of the president of parliament of preventing the broadcast of opposition speeches.
Police demanded on 14 November that the daily Asian Wall Street Journal print a correction to an article that said the bombing attack in Bali had been planned in southern Thailand. In a letter to one of the authors, Bangkok-based US journalist Shawn Crispin, and to the paper’s Hong Kong editor, Reginald Chua, they said it violated the press law because it could cause panic in the country. The prime minister said the article was absurd. The authorities did not say what action they would take if the paper refused to print a correction. But without naming him, the defence minister threatened to punish Crispin because he was already under surveillance on account of controversial articles he wrote earlier in the year.
The authorities threatened on 22 November to sue the US weekly magazine Time for reporting that Islamist terrorists had been trained in the south of the country. A government spokesman said various reprisals were being considered. Time was the latest publication -after the Asian Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times - to report links between the Jamaah Islamiyah, a regional network thought to be linked with Al-Qaeda, and Islamic groups in southern Thailand.