For the last two years, Thailand's powerful and freewheeling media have been reeling from the effects of a popular and savvy prime minister who seems intent on using his absolute majority in Parliament to control the press. The process has been as subtle as it has been painful, with journalists saying that most pressure is felt behind closed doors.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's powerful political machine and conservative, populist message have enabled the government to stifle criticism since he came to power in 2001. Journalists and editors say privately that they are routinely pressured by the government to alter news coverage and rein in overly critical reporters. On the business side, government advertising has been used to reward some media outlets and punish others.
Occasionally, however, the tensions come to the surface. In November, several newspapers revealed that a family closely allied with Thaksin's ruling Thai Rak Thai party had acquired the largest stake in the Nation Multimedia Group, which is traditionally the most independent media company in the country. Relatives of Thaksin's transport minister purchased about 20 percent of the company, more than twice as much as the next two leading shareholders, causing some critics to fear that The Nation newspaper, which is owned by the Nation Multimedia Group, might soon be tamed. "This purchase is linked with political clout and that's what makes us really worried," said prominent academic analyst and government critic Supinya Klangnarong of the nonpartisan Campaign for Media Reform.
Supinya herself is being sued for civil libel by Shin Corporation, the telecommunications empire founded by Thaksin and now formally controlled by members of his family, for comments she made in the Thai Post newspaper in July claiming that government policies had benefited the company. Shin Corp., Thailand's largest telecommunications and mobile phone company, is also suing three editors of the Thai Post over the article, which charged that the Thai Rak Thai party, founded by Thaksin in 2000 as a platform for his bid for the premiership, had pursued policies aimed at boosting the value of Shin Corporation's core businesses.
The case, which was scheduled to go to trial in 2004, seems destined to become a battle between reform advocates, such as Supinya, and Shin Corporation. At a preliminary hearing in December, some 50 representatives of activist organizations expressed support for Supinya, while lawyers for the company denied any links between the Thaksin government or Thai Rak Thai and Shin Corp. Thaksin, who is believed to be Thailand's richest man, has also denied having any current involvement in his family's businesses.
Thailand has some of the strongest legal and constitutional protections for the media of any country in Asia, and the print media remain largely free despite pressures from the regime. The constitution calls for the privatization of the country's radio and television frequencies, almost all of which are held by the military or government agencies. But procedural delays and wrangling over the shape of broadcast regulations stalled liberalization in 2003, according to critics. Meanwhile, the government, through the military and the office of the prime minister, has the ability to greatly influence radio and television news. The country's sole private television channel, iTV, is controlled by Shin Corp., a purchase that was made in 2000 just in advance of Thaksin's rise to power.
In February, 20 Thai Rak Thai parliamentarians proposed a bill to create a broadcast media council that would have the power to issue ethical guidelines and punish offending outlets with sanctions, including jail and closure. The Thai Journalists Association, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (a regional press freedom group), and other organizations denounced the move as inimical to press freedom. According to many observers, the bill, which had yet to be passed at year's end, was part of a conservative attempt to shape the direction of a planned National Broadcast Commission, which will be in charge of frequency allocation and privatization under a constitutional mandate. Critics contended that academics, journalists, and others were being frozen out of the process in favor of a secretive pro-business agenda pushed by the government. The legislation creating the commission should be finalized in 2004.
Nongovernmental organizations, press groups, and opposition legislators have failed to make progress on other elements of their broad reform agenda. Harsh criminal defamation laws remain on the books, and lawmakers have refused to repeal the 1941 Printing Act, an outdated law that gives authorities the power to close media outlets in times of emergency despite constitutional provisions that contradict the legislation.
Thaksin is famously prickly in his attitudes toward the press, which often engages in self-censorship to avoid his wrath. For example, the government launched a particularly bloody campaign in 2003 to "eliminate" the methamphetamine drug trade. As the death toll soared past 2,000, television news anchors took the government line and repeatedly announced without skepticism that the deaths were the result of gang feuds. Protests by scholars, human rights groups, and senior public figures, who claimed that the police were engaged in extrajudicial executions, went unreported or were relegated to the inside pages of the Thai-language press. Not surprising, there was little or no investigative coverage in the Thai press of the death toll, despite international alarm over the campaign.
Thaksin's attitude toward the media seemed to be summed up in remarks he made to the press corps in May, following a visit to Europe to promote Thai trade relations. "You media people have to believe me," he said. "Today, serving the country is more important than sending your news dispatches daily to your editors. Think before you do anything that damages the country."
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