24 Jan 06
Speaking to reporters upon his return from his New Year’s holiday trip to Singapore with his family last week, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra asked the Thai press to cut back on reporting political news.
Then during the so-called “CEO Retreat” meeting with senior government officials to discuss development strategy a few days later, Thaksin described how “thrilled” he had been to read the newspapers in Singapore. Thaksin pointed out that Singaporean papers kept their political news coverage to a minimum and focused instead on new innovations and the economic potential of the island country. We don’t know exactly what our leader read while holidaying in Singapore that made him so excited. But one thing we can be sure of is that he definitely found nothing critical of the Singaporean government in the newspapers there.
There could not have been a bigger contrast when one of the biggest stories of the day in the Thai newspapers he picked up while flying home was about an imminent rebellion by a faction in his Thai Rak Thai Party. And knowing the nature of the Thai press, Thaksin would not expect Snoh Thienthong, his erstwhile mentor and the man behind the political turmoil, to disappear from the headlines easily.
This wasn’t the first time Thaksin tried to get the Thai media to devote less space to politics. His argument has been that journalists would do a better service for the country by concentrating on “more constructive stories”. Thaksin also frequently criticises the Thai press for what he claims to be its lack of professionalism and preoccupation with “bad news”.
To be fair, Thaksin may be right to a certain extent in his chiding of the media. Journalists are far from being perfect when it comes to professional responsibility. But trying to uphold the Singaporean media as an example for Thai journalists to follow is not only beside the point, but also an insult to the intelligence of the Thai public.
Thaksin should know as much as any well-informed Thai that the reason the Singaporean media are so devoid of political news is that there is no politics to cover in the first place. The island nation is essentially under a one-party rule that tolerates no criticism or dissenting views. The People’s Action Party that has ruled Singapore since independence has stamped out all opposition in any meaningful form, while the parliament has been reduced to nothing more than a rubber stamp.
Government critics have either been jailed or sued into bankruptcy. The government has direct control over the editorial policies of all the print and broadcast media, which are managed through state-sanctioned media corporations. Singapore is a classic example of an intertwined relationship between the government and the media. And obviously the people who benefit the most from this type of relationship are those in power, basically because they are safe from scrutiny by the media.
Prime Minister Thaksin must have his own reasons for wanting to have a politically tame press in Thailand. He has less to worry about with the electronic media, which have always been kept on a short leash anyway.
His consistently declining popularity is due largely to relentless exposure by civic groups and the press of the corruption, cronyism and conflicts of interest that plague his administration. Incompetence among many of his Cabinet members as reflected in media reports has also added to his political woes.
Of course, the solo campaign launched by media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul against the administration is also adding fuel to the fire of discontentment among the public. And now with Snoh the political king-maker rocking the boat, it’s understandable why more political coverage by the press is the last thing Thaksin would want to see.
But Thaksin should know that his political troubles – all of which are of his own making anyway – cannot be wished away simply by having them kept off of the front pages of local newspapers.