Attacks on the Press 2002: Thailand

During 2002, Thailand’s reputation as a regional haven of constitutionally guaranteed free expression was frequently assaulted by the country’s powerful prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his political allies. The government booted radio and television programs off the air, threatened Thai journalists with financial investigations and foreign reporters with expulsion, and engaged in angry exchanges with the press.

Problems began to surface in January after the Dow Jones-owned Far Eastern Economic Review published a short article about tensions between Thaksin and the country’s revered monarch, King Bumibol Adulyadej. Police banned the issue and threatened to expel the magazine’s two Bangkok correspondents, claiming that the pair had violated Thailand’s tough lèse majesté laws, which forbid public discussion of internal palace issues and ban critical commentary about the royal family. The royal palace did not publicly complain about the article, and many observers believe the magazine’s frequently harsh criticism of Thaksin motivated the action. The move sparked local and international outcry, and eventually the magazine issued an apology. The government later backed down and allowed the journalists to remain in the country.

The Economist magazine, meanwhile, avoided a formal ban by withholding an issue from Thailand in early March, after authorities announced they would review the contents. The issue carried an article analyzing the thorny relations between the palace and the prime minister.

In the aftermath of the incidents, the government also acted against the local press. Officials pulled the outspoken and independent Nation Multimedia Group’s news program from a government-owned radio station in March because a show included commentary criticizing the government’s moves against the Far Eastern Economic Review correspondents. The Nation Multimedia Group later pulled all political commentary from its cable news channel, Nation TV, to protest what it called government interference.

Just days later, The Nation newspaper, which the Nation Multimedia Group also owns, reported that local bankers had received a letter from the government’s Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), a body created to investigate drug dealers and other criminals, asking for the financial records of journalists from The Nation and another critical daily, the Thai Post. The Administrative Court quickly issued an injunction calling the probe illegal and ordering the AMLO to suspend the investigations. At the same time, some 1,000 Thai journalists sent a petition to Parliament calling for legislators to defend press freedom.

Also in March, an executive of Naew Naý a Thai-language daily, told a Senate committee that Thaksin himself had asked the newspaper to drop the column of staunch government critic Prasong Soonsiri. The newspaper refused, and the executive told the committee that as a result, the publication had lost advertising revenue from several state-owned enterprises. Other editors told CPJ that the government frequently withholds advertising from critics and awards lucrative advertising contracts to favored media outlets.

Thaksin, who is also one of the country’s richest tycoons, sought to distance himself from these controversies, telling reporters he had nothing to do with expelling reporters or attacking the press through the AMLO.

One of the media’s few victories during 2002 came in September, when Thailand’s Central Labor Court ruled in favor of 21 employees of iTV–the country’s sole privately owned television channel–who were dismissed in 2001. The workers, most of whom are journalists, had complained that iTV, which had been sold to a company controlled by Thaksin’s family, was slanting its coverage to favor Thaksin, who was then running for office. After airing their complaints publicly, the journalists were fired. The court ordered the employees reinstated with back pay.

A 1997 reform constitution called for the privatization of the country’s radio and television frequencies, almost all of which are held by the military or government agencies, but there was no progress in 2002 toward liberalization of the broadcast media. In addition, Thailand continued to use harsh criminal defamation laws against journalists and editors. In August, Chaisiri Samuddhavanij, a columnist at the Manager Daily, was convicted of libeling former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan in a January 2000 article. The journalist, who had alleged that Surin was involved in attacks by Burmese dissident groups in Thailand, was sentenced to three months in jail but was freed on bail pending an appeal.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have failed to make any commitment to repeal the 1941 Printing Act, an outdated and unconstitutional law that allows authorities to close media outlets.

January 8

Far Eastern Economic Review

The January 10 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review was banned because of an article about the strained relationship between King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Maj. Gen. Treethos Ronlitthiwichai, the chief of a police department that oversees press affairs, issued the order banning the sale and distribution of the January 10 edition of the weekly magazine, according to news reports. In banning the issue, which had already been on sale in Thailand since January 4, police officials cited a 1941 Publishing Act, which permits censoring statements or articles that “might lead to social and national disorder.”

The article in question was a one-paragraph item in the magazine’s “Intelligence” section that commented upon reported tensions between the prime minister’s office and the Thai Royal Palace. Much of the information was based on a public speech given by the king on his birthday on December 5. The content of the speech, which was widely perceived to be critical of Thaksin, was reported in the Thai press.

February 22

Shawn Crispin, Far Eastern Economic Review
Rodney Tasker, Far Eastern Economic Review

Thai immigration authorities threatened to expel two foreign correspondents from the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) on the grounds that they endanger national security. Crispin, the magazine’s bureau chief, and correspondent Tasker, who is also president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, received an official notice revoking their visas dated February 22, the same day that Thai-language newspapers carried stories saying that the police had placed the two reporters on a blacklist. The magazine’s publisher, Philip Revzin, and editor-in-chief, Michael Vatikiotis, were also named in the blacklist circulated to Thai media outlets.

The action stemmed from a January 10 item in the FEER that discussed tensions between Thailand’s venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the prime minister’s office. The article was largely based on public comments the king had made that were seen as critical of the government. Officials banned the January 10 issue from being sold in Thailand. The magazine presented a formal appeal to Thai immigration officials on February 25 in Bangkok, and Crispin and Tasker were allowed to stay in the country.

Thaksin was quoted in the Thai press as saying he knew nothing of the order to expel the journalists. But on February 25, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Darryl Johnson, raised the issue with the prime minister in very forceful terms, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Interior Minister Purachai Piemsomboon, who must formally sign any deportation order, told reporters that it was purely an immigration issue. “This matter has nothing to do with prime minister’s personal anger over FEER,” Purachai told The Associated Press. “Please do not speculate that the government has ordered the police to do such kind of thing.”

March 4

Nation Multimedia Group

A Defense Department official ordered Smart Bomb, the company that licenses airtime on FM 90.5, to discontinue programming produced by the Nation Multimedia Group. The order went into effect the next day. Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who is also the defense minister, claimed that the Nation Multimedia Group’s radio programs had “unreasonably criticized the government.”

FM 90.5 is owned by the Defense Department, which gives private companies the right to license airtime. (Most Thai broadcast outlets remain in the hands of the army and government agencies, a legacy from years of military dictatorship.) These companies, in turn, hire third parties to produce the actual programming. The Nation Multimedia Group supplied eight hours of daily programming to FM 90.5. The group, which also owns the English-language daily The Nation and the Thai-language business daily Krungthep Turakij, is one of the largest independent media organizations in the country.

The order followed the previous week’s broadcast on FM 90.5 of an interview with Prasang Soonsiri, a leading critic of the current government. In the interview, Prasang criticized the government’s reaction to an article in the January 10 Far Eastern Economic Review that discussed tensions between Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The administration banned circulation of the January 10 edition of the Review and subsequently issued a deportation order for the magazine’s two Bangkok-based correspondents.

The interview with Prasang Soonsiri also aired on Nation Channel, which the Nation Multimedia Group produces for the private television station UBC 8. However, the broadcast of the interview was interrupted. While station officials cited unspecified technical problems, the Nation Multimedia Group issued a statement blaming political interference. In the statement, the group announced that it would cease all political coverage and commentary on Nation Channel pending assurances that its “political news production will be free from all forms of interference, directly or indirectly.”

June 28

Ma Tin Win, New Light of Myanmar
Maung Maung, New Light of Myanmar

Burmese journalists Ma Tin Win, a columnist for the official daily New Light of Myanmar, and Maung Maung, an editor at the paper, were banned from entering Thailand by Thai foreign minister Surakiat Sathirathai. The Thai government deemed a series of articles Ma Tin Win had written about the history of Thailand’s monarchy to be “insulting,” according to Thai news reports. The ban came amid tense relations between the two countries, which worsened in May when Burma’s military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, blamed Thailand for aiding ethnic Shan rebels who had attacked a Burmese military base that month.