Attacks on the Press 2000: Thailand

IN A COUNTRY PLAGUED BY CORRUPTION AND CRONYISM, the Thai press is taking advantage of constitutional reforms and a more open political environment to investigate official misdeeds.

In late December, the leading opposition candidate for prime minister, telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, was indicted on charges of violating rules on the declaration of assets. The charges, which may result in Thaksin being barred from holding public office, resulted from the pioneering investigative journalism of reporters from Prachachart Turakij, a twice-weekly Thai-language business newspaper. Several months earlier, the paper uncovered evidence that Thaksin had illegally hidden US$53 million worth of shares in his telecommunications company through a false stock transfer to one of his maids and a family driver.

The Thaksin case showed how aggressive local journalists have been using a reform Constitution passed in 1997, an Access to Information Act passed the same year, and a new official anti-corruption body to check the malfeasance of officials at all levels of government. A similar case earlier in the year resulted in a leading ruling party politician being barred from office following newspaper revelations about his hidden assets.

Away from the glare of national publicity, however, investigating powerful local officials can still be a dangerous business. In April, gunmen in the northern town of Chiang Mai seriously wounded independent local newspaper publisher Amnat Khunyosying. After narrowly escaping death, Amnat fought for justice in the courts, pledging to prove that a local political boss had ordered the attack in retaliation for critical articles in his newspaper, Phak Nua Raiwan.

The disposition of Thai broadcast media was still unsettled at year’s end. Military-controlled companies own nearly all the country’s radio and television stations, a holdover from the extensive political and economic influence that the armed forces enjoyed before their last, unsuccessful, coup attempt in 1991. The 1997 Constitution mandated that the broadcast industry be privatized, but vague implementing legislation and political wrangling have made the process slow and far from transparent. The Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the most powerful press organization in Southeast Asia, led a fight throughout the year to open up the process and give journalists a voice in reforming the public airwaves.

The TJA has also been a consistent force for self-regulation of the Thai media, encouraging its members to reform questionable ethical practices. The TJA also wields considerable influence in the region as a founding member of the independent Southeast Asian Press Alliance. In October, the TJA withdrew from the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists (CAJ), a regional body dominated by representatives of authoritarian governments, calling on the CAJ to become more transparent and more aware of the need for a free press throughout Southeast Asia.

Amnat Khunyosying, Phak Nua Raiwan

Amnat, owner and editor of the newspaper Phak Nua Raiwan, was seriously wounded by an unidentified gunman at around 4:45 p.m. on April 18.

A CPJ investigation revealed that the attack was likely prompted by Phak Nua Raiwan‘s coverage of political corruption and organized crime in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand.

Four men in a blue Toyota sedan followed Amnat’s pickup truck to the Lanna View housing estate, off the Chiang Mai-Lampang highway, where he had gone to drop off a friend. One of the men shot the journalist and left his apparently lifeless body by the side of the road. Nearby residents then rushed Amnat to Chiang Mai’s McCormick Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery for bullet wounds to his stomach.

Phak Nua Raiwan is one of the leading Thai-language papers in northern Thailand and is known for its aggressive coverage of this crime-prone region.

On April 20, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, urging him to ensure a prompt and thorough investigation into the case.

However, local prosecutors have refused to mount an effective case against four Thai Army soldiers whom local police arrested in connection with the shooting. “The prosecutors don’t want to do anything,” Amnat told CPJ. “They are afraid or bought off by the local political bosses.” The journalist began investigating the case himself, and eventually hired private legal counsel to represent him. His trial was pending at year’s end.

Suriwong Uapatiphan, Khao Sod

Suriwong, news editor of the Thai-language daily Khao Sod, was awakened at around 3 a.m. by a bomb blast in front of his Bangkok home. Investigators said the bomb, which damaged the building and two cars, was electronically detonated and was apparently not intended to kill anyone inside the house.

Editors at Suriwong’s newspaper, which is one of the leading dailies in Thailand, were quoted as saying they believed the attack was a result of Khao Sod‘s generally critical coverage of the police. Suriwong also wrote a popular column that had often taken local police to task for alleged corruption, and he had been sued for defamation by a police general.

On August 28, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, urging him to ensure that Suriwong’s attackers were prosecuted and that the results of any investigation were made public.