Attacks on the Press 1999: Thailand

Thailand’s journalists enjoy one of the freest presses in the developing world, and a new constitution implemented in 1997 provides some of the broadest press protections in Asia. The 1997 Official Information Act, which is modeled on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, gives the public the right to access information that was once routinely classified. It is the only statute of its kind in Asia. Furthermore, Thai journalists’ organizations are among the strongest in the region. Thailand is also home base for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), which was founded in 1998 with the assistance of CPJ and helps to unite free press organizations in Southeast Asia.

In 1999, the strength of these journalists’ organizations helped inspire some unusual efforts to increase professional accountability. Corruption and unethical practices were the specific targets of criticism by journalistic associations and the industry-managed Press Council of Thailand. In February, Thai Rath, the country’s largest and most powerful daily, was called to account for running a lurid color picture of a near-naked victim of a brutal rape and murder on its front page. Journalists’ associations, the press council, and editorial censure forced the paper to apologize for what others in the profession deemed an ethical lapse.

Also in February, complaints from a number of working reporters led the press council to order a well-publicized investigation into bribery allegations against reporters from both Thai Rath and the English-language daily Bangkok Post.

Action in these two cases may spur further efforts to establish ethical guidelines among Thai journalists. Such efforts could become groundbreaking examples, in a region where authoritarian governments still justify repressive laws by claiming that the press is unable to police its own ranks.

Incidents of violence against Thai journalists, and official interference with the press, have declined markedly in recent years. Thai sensibilities are not always comfortable with the new hurly-burly world of free expression, however. In July, the Thai Foreign Ministry complained bitterly to Newsweek magazine about a cover story that highlighted the notorious Thai sex industry as a key component of economic recovery. But no action was taken–or even threatened–against the magazine or its correspondents.

More seriously, strict lese majesté laws still bar open discussion of the Thai monarchy. The Hollywood remake of The King and I was banned by Thai censors on the grounds that it was historically inaccurate, and a book on the current monarch called The Revolutionary King, which contains several critical revelations, was also banned. The book would have been a sure bestseller in Thailand, but was not even covered in the Thai press.

Concern also surrounds a proposed national broadcasting commission that would regulate Thailand’s airwaves under a constitutional mandate to reform the current military-dominated system. Journalists are gearing up to ensure that the body, which is likely to become a reality in 2000, includes individuals who understand media requirements.

July 13

In the late evening of July 13, Deputy Prime Minister Trairong Suwankhiri’s private secretary led seven armed men into the offices of the Thai Post, a Thai-language daily newspaper, and demanded to see the reporter who had written an article about Trairong’s visit to a fishing village in southern Thailand. The article, published in the newspaper’s July 12 edition, stated that Trairong had been too afraid to meet with protesting fishermen during his trip.

Trairong’s secretary, Chalie Noppawong na Ayuthaya, complained that the story was untrue and had tarnished Trairong’s reputation. Backed by his armed companions, Chalie asked that the newspaper issue a correction to the report. According to an Associated Press interview with Thai Post editor Kannikar Viriyakul, Chalie then threatened that “he would come back, but in a different manner” if the newspaper published another unflattering story about his boss. The group occupied the newspaper’s offices for about an hour, but left without injuring staff members or damaging any property.

On July 15, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai demanded an explanation for the incident from his new deputy premier. CPJ wrote to the prime minister that day, expressing concern over the deputy prime minister’s intimidation efforts. CPJ also encouraged the prime minister to make the results of his inquiries public as soon as possible.

On August 2, CPJ received a letter from the prime minister’s secretariat signed by government spokesman Akapol Sorasuchart, assuring us that the government had demanded a written clarification from Trairong. The letter noted: “As public figures, politicians have to learn to … patiently accept criticism.” Sorasuchart also offered the government’s “sincere hope that this incident will be the last.”