Press conditions worsened markedly, reflecting the fourth year of deterioration since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took office in 2001. Most worrisome was the frequent use of litigation that sought criminal penalties and disproportionate monetary damages. The cases echo the repressive practices of neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, where authoritarian governments have long used overwhelming legal threats to intimidate journalists and stifle critical reporting.
The number of criminal and civil defamation suits filed by politicians and their affiliated business interests against journalists and editors rose considerably. Cases in which the Thai Press Council provided bail money for accused journalists had more than doubled, to 55, through September. At the same time, monetary damages sought in civil cases soared and included some of the largest figures ever requested for libel anywhere in the world.
Hearings began in July in the highly anticipated criminal defamation case filed by the Shin Corp. against media activist Supinya Klangnarong and three senior editors of the Thai-language daily Thai Post. Shin, a communications conglomerate founded by Thaksin and majority-owned by his family, charged that the activist damaged the company’s reputation in published remarks that hinted at a conflict of interest between Thaksin’s public office and his family’s private businesses. The four defendants faced the possibility of two years’ imprisonment in the case; a verdict was expected in early 2006. In an accompanying civil complaint, Shin sought 400 million baht (US$10 million) in financial damages. The civil suit was scheduled to begin in 2006.
Politically connected corporations and state agencies followed Shin’s example, filing punitive legal actions to curb media scrutiny of their activities. Picnic Corp., a cooking-gas company majority-owned and managed by family members of then–Cabinet minister Suriya Lapwisuthisin, filed criminal and civil defamation charges in July against the Thai-language newspaper Matichon and its sister publication Prachachart Tooragit for reports on alleged accounting fraud at the company. Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Commission later suspended trading in Picnic’s publicly listed shares due to concerns about the quality of the company’s financial disclosure.
Picnic nonetheless sought a stunning 10 billion baht (US$240 million) in damages from Matichon, and an additional 5 billion baht (US$120 million) from Prachachart Tooragit in the civil suits. The company also sought a punitive court injunction against Matichon editors that would bar them from working in journalism for a five-year period.
Two state agencies, the Airports Authority of Thailand and the New Bangkok International Airport, filed criminal defamation charges in August against the English-language daily Bangkok Post for a story it published and later retracted about cracks in the runways at the new Bangkok airport.
Bangkok Post managers fired two veteran editors who worked on the story after the government filed its charges, which also included a demand that the newspaper publish and broadcast public apologies in a number of local and foreign news outlets, including CNN and the BBC. The two agencies have also threatened to file a 1 billion baht (US$25 million) civil suit.
Thaksin filed criminal and civil defamation charges against veteran journalist Sondhi Limthongkul and Sarocha Porn-udomsak in September for remarks they made on a television talk show. The journalists alleged that Thaksin had been disloyal to the country’s monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, by usurping functions traditionally administered by the king, such as the appointment of the Buddhist Sangha supreme patriarch. The government abruptly canceled the popular program, “Muang Thai Rai Sapda,” which was carried on state-owned Channel 9 through a concession agreement, on grounds that the show had “promoted misunderstanding among the public.”
Thaksin later filed 500 million baht (US$12.5 million) defamation charges against the daily Manager for publishing critical comments made by a respected Buddhist monk, Luangta Maha Bua Yannasampanno, who said in a sermon that Thaksin’s government was “destroying” the country. The prime minister refrained from filing charges against the monk, even after the outspoken ascetic publicly dared him to do so.
By December, Thaksin said he was withdrawing his several complaints against Sondhi, Sarocha, and Manager Media, according to news reports. His announcement came two days after King Bhumibol Adulyadej publicly invited press scrutiny of the highest levels of Thai government. In a speech given on his 78th birthday, the king said that he was not infallible and that he could be criticized.
Faced with legal and financial uncertainties, Thai publications were targeted for hostile financial takeovers by close associates of the prime minister. In September, GMM Grammy, founded and managed by Paiboon Damrongchaitham, a political ally of the prime minister, took controlling stakes in both Matichon and Post Publishing Co., which publishes the Bangkok Post.
After public protests by staff and press freedom advocates, GMM Grammy sold down its stake in Matichon from 32 percent to 20 percent, allowing Matichon‘s co-founder, Kanchai Boonpan, to keep control of the company. But GMM Grammy retained its controlling stake in Post Publishing, raising concerns that the Bangkok Post may come under managerial pressure to soften its coverage of Thaksin’s government.
Family members of Suriya Jungrungreangkit, secretary-general of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai political party, gradually increased their collective stake in the Nation Group from around 20 percent to more than 22 percent, making them the largest collective shareholder in the staunchly independent media company. Senior Nation Group editors told CPJ they feared that, if the Jungrungreangkit family increased its stake to more than 25 percent, it would have the voting rights to change management.
Krungthep Tooragit, the Nation Group’s aggressive Thai-language business daily, broke a story in May revealing irregularities and alleged corruption in Suriya’s oversight of the procurement of scanners for Bangkok’s new international airport.
Amid spiraling violence in Thailand’s southern border regions, Thaksin issued an executive decree in July that empowered the government to censor news for reasons of national security. The government did not use its new censorship powers in the initial months, but democracy advocates said the decree had undermined many of the civil liberties protected under the 1997 constitution, including legal guarantees for freedom of expression and press freedom.
The National Broadcast Commission (NBC), an independent body charged with redistributing the country’s radio and television frequencies from the state to the private sector as required by the 1997 constitution, was finally formed in October after a controversial selection process that took more than seven years. Media reform advocates alleged the new body disproportionately represented the same vested interests, including the Thai military, that already monopolize the country’s electronic media.
The NBC was short-lived. In November, the Central Administrative Court nullified its formation due to irregularities in the selection process.
The NBC had aimed to rein in the recent proliferation of community radio stations, many of which provide alternative views to those aired over state- and military-controlled radio stations. More than 2,000 new community stations have established operations since 2000, spurring the prime minister’s office to issue new regulations aimed at curbing their wattage and coverage areas.
The government’s Public Relations Department and police in August closed FM 92.25, a popular Bangkok-based community radio station that had broadcast many critical reports about the government, claiming that the station’s transmission signal interfered with air-traffic signals. The station defiantly streamed its critical reports over the Internet instead.