When populist telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) party came to power with a solid majority in January, the stage was set for an ongoing confrontation between the new prime minister, eager to contrive a positive public image, and the freewheeling Thai press.
In February, 23 news employees of iTV, Thailand’s only non-government-owned television station, were summarily fired after they claimed that they had been pressured to provide pro-Thaksin news coverage during the election campaign. The firings led to protests from local and international press advocacy groups, largely because Shin Corporation, which Thaksin founded and his family holds, had recently acquired a controlling interest in iTV.
In June, the government’s Labor Relations Commission sided with the sacked iTV employees, who had filed a petition with the commission, and ordered the company to reinstate them with full compensation. Management of iTV appealed the decision in court, but by year’s end the case had not been resolved. In October, iTV employees released a book about the drama, Testimony of the Rebels.
Also in June, the army ordered its radio and television stations to air “constructive news” about the prime minister and cabinet ministers, as well as to publicize government policies and measures, an action that the Thai Journalists Association complained violated the Thai constitution.
In August, Thaksin was narrowly acquitted in the Constitutional Court of falsely concealing assets when he served in a previous government, charges that would have barred him from office if upheld. Thaksin was indicted in December 2000 after a series of aggressive, award-winning investigative reports in the Thai business newspaper Prachachart Thurakij. Many Thai newspapers argued that the verdict was politically motivated.
Shortly after the acquittal, police warned two local dailies, Thai Rath and Krungthep Thurakij, that they could face closure for carrying a critical foreign news agency report about the case. In addition, the prime minister’s office tightened restrictions on journalists interviewing cabinet ministers. Thai journalists complained privately to CPJ that Thaksin aides were pressuring editors to cover the administration more favorably in the verdict’s aftermath. There were also reports that companies close to Thaksin were pulling advertisements from critical media outlets.
While the print press is overwhelmingly privately owned, most radio and television stations remain in the hands of the army and government agencies, a legacy of past military rule. The 1997 constitution includes a provision calling for the privatization of broadcast outlets, but the process has been slow and fraught with political infighting.
In August, popular television personality and opposition senator Chirmsak Pinthong was ousted as host of a talk show on state-owned Channel 11, which is operated by the prime minister’s office. In addition, the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand told Chirmsak’s production firm, Watchdog Company, that its contract to produce two shows on state-run Channel 9 was being revoked. A number of journalist groups and opposition politicians complained that the actions against Chirmsak violated the 1997 reform constitution, which guarantees press freedom and ensures the rights of journalists to work without interference. “There is a climate of fear,” Chirmsak said, ” People are censoring themselves and that is dangerous.”
Beyond the capital, provincial journalists were again targeted for violent attack in 2001. Commentator Withayut Sangsopit, a radio host in the town of Surat Thani, was murdered after reporting on corruption allegations involving the local municipal council. Prominent editor Amnat Jongyotying of the Northern Daily newspaper in Chiang Mai continued without success to pursue a court case against four men accused of shooting him in April 2000. Amnat told CPJ that he and his family received numerous death threats during the year, allegedly from local officials he criticized in print.
Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, seemed to address the media controversies in his December speech to the nation on his 74th birthday. Looking toward Thaksin, who was in the audience, the king warned that the country was on a course to “catastrophe” and that “everybody needs to lower his ego.” Widely perceived to be a backer of political reform, the king added, “People get angry at others who express a different opinion while in fact they should be angry at themselves.”
Withayut, a radio journalist and commentator, was gunned down on April 10 in the southern city of Surat Thani.
According to police, Withayut was approached by several gunmen and shot five times as he was about to enter his radio studio to begin his popular morning program, “Catch Up With the World.” Withayut’s program was carried on Fourth Army Radio, the regional affiliate of the Royal Thai Army Radio and Television network.
Surat Thani police believe Withayut, 56, was killed as a result of his reporting on irregularities involving a 50 million baht (US$1.1 million) real estate deal for a municipal garbage dump. The reports began in 1999 and eventually led the Interior Ministry to investigate and to order a portion of the money returned to the government.
Police arrested two men in connection with the shooting, one of them a municipal official implicated in the garbage dump scandal.
A well-known radio commentator in southern Thailand, Withayut was for many years a correspondent for the Bangkok-based, Thai-language Daily News before starting his radio program. Police said the journalist had received numerous death threats and was under police protection prior to the murder. However, Withayut’s protection was lifted shortly before the killing, according to several Thai newspapers.
Kaset Puengpak, Thai Rath
Kaset, a stringer for the Thai-language newspaper Thai Rath, was shot dead in Viset Chaichan District, Ang Thong Province. Kaset was known for his reporting on local drug gangs linked to powerful politicians and police officers, according to Thai Rath and several Thai journalists. The Thai Journalists Association issued a statement saying that Kaset was likely murdered for his journalistic work. After the killing, authorities interrogated a police corporal who had quarreled with Kaset over law enforcement issues in the area. No arrests have been reported in the case.
Suchart Charnchanavivat, Chao Mukdahan, Siam Rath
KILLED (motive unconfirmed)
Settha Sririwat, Naew Na, Channel 3
KILLED (motive unconfirmed)
Chuvit Chueharn, iTV, The Nation, Krungthep Thurakij
KILLED (motive unconfirmed)
Somboon Saenviset, Daily News
Paiboon Bunthos, a stringer for the daily Thai Rath in the provincial town of Mukdahan, near the Laotian border, opened fire on four of his colleagues during dinner on a floating restaurant, killing three, before committing suicide by turning his weapon on himself, according to police reports.
The reporters killed were Suchart, 62, editor of the newspaper Chao Mukdahan and a stringer for the daily Siam Rath; Settha, 38, a stringer for the daily Naew Na and Channel 3 television; and Chuvit, 38, a stringer for iTV, The Nation newspaper, and the daily Krungthep Thurakij. Also injured in the attack were Somboon, a stringer for the Daily News, and Vichian Susonna, a lawyer.
The motive behind the attack was unclear. At the time of the shooting, police reported that one of the victims, Suchart, had recently published articles in his local newspaper, Chao Mukdahan, accusing unidentified local journalists of bribe taking and extortion. According to Thai journalists, there were other long-standing differences among the men, including allegations of theft lodged by the gunman against others in the group.
The dinner at the floating restaurant was supposedly organized so that the men could settle their differences.
Officials of the Thai Journalists Association say that the incident in Mukdahan might have been related to the journalists’ illegal business activities. It is not uncommon in Thailand for provincial newspaper stringers, who are notoriously underpaid, to use their positions to solicit bribes or favors from local officials.
Mukdahan is a center for a thriving border trade with neighboring Laos, which may also have played a role in the killing, according to Thai journalists. In the aftermath of the incident, the Press Council of Thailand issued a December 10 letter calling on national newspapers to exercise more care in training and recruiting their provincial stringers in order to minimize corruption and unethical behavior.
The Thai Journalists Association did not consider the attack to be related directly to journalism, but the bizarre nature of the tragedy made it difficult to sort out the gunman’s motive.