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Government interference spells crisis for media
17 October 2005
Is Thailand’s media in crisis? The short answer is yes, definitely. I have personally spent the last six months researching the media freedom situation here, and based on numerous interviews with editors, journalists and press association members, the trend towards less press freedom and more government restriction is unmistakable. Thaksin Shinawatra’s government has launched what many media members describe as a well-coordinated assault against their ability to freely gather and present the news.
Government officials have harassed editors and journalists, suspended operating concessions, revoked state advertising and filed a string of crippling criminal and civil defamation lawsuits against news outlets that have tried to maintain independent editorial policies.
The number of criminal defamation suits filed against journalists on record at the Thai Press Council, through August, had more than doubled compared to the number filed all of last year. Damages sought in civil defamation suits have risen astronomically, including the stunning US$240 million ( 9.8 billion baht) defamation case recently filed against Matichon.
With many media companies facing huge financial and legal uncertainties, close associates of Mr Thaksin’s government have apparently launched the next phase of the campaign: aggressive financial takeovers.
As an organisation that monitors and safeguards press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about the rash of libel lawsuits filed by politicians, including the prime minister, and their affiliated business interests against journalists and editors, which we view as unnecessary and exorbitant.
We and other international media watchdog groups, including Reporters Sans Frontieres, the International Federation of Journalists and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, all call on the government to cease and desist from this practice immediately.
I won’t go into the fine point details delineating exactly how this government has moved against the press and the expert critical commentators they often quote. Rather, I would like to take this opportunity to sound a cautionary note, using comparative history as my guide. The use of the courts to cow enterprise journalism is not new to Southeast Asia.
The authoritarian governments in Singapore and Malaysia have famously cowed enterprise journalism through the threat of legal actions. In his public speeches and weekly radio addresses, Mr Thaksin has frequently cited Singapore and Malaysia as role models for Thailand’s future development.
But if, as recent events suggest, Mr Thaksin’s fawning references to the two neighbouring authoritarian regimes extends to his government’s policy towards the press, then without a doubt the Thai media is in crisis and could be for some time to come.
Consider briefly Malaysia’s historical example.
Co-opting the local media was a critical component of Mahathir Mohammed’s drive to consolidate his grip on political power in the early 1980s. In one telling incident in 1983, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno)-controlled press dutifully failed to report on a constitutional amendment Dr Mahathir’s government had quietly tabled, which aimed to strip the constitutional monarch of its power to give his assent to all acts passed by parliament.
When the legislation sparked a constitutional crisis, the Umno-controlled press, namely the mass circulation New Straits Times and Berita Harian, ran a series of reports, features and analyses slanted against the Malay royalty.
Under that barrage, an amended version of the same legislation was finally passed and the country’s royal sultanates were cast into political irrelevance. Dr Mahathir has reigned supreme in Malaysia ever since, anointing his successor as he sees fit. An interesting historical point to ponder, I venture.
In 1986, Dr Mahathir broadened the Official Secrets Act, which broadened the definition of an official secret, removed judicial review of what constituted an official secret, and imposed mandatory imprisonment in the event of conviction. Several journalists were jailed under this act. Later in 1986, Dr Mahathir moved to expel two foreign journalists working for a bygone incarnation of a feistier Asian Wall Street Journal for articles that allegedly “spread feelings of uncertainty among the people”. That charge sounds vaguely familiar to me. In reality the two journalists had reported on a banking scandal that implicated Dr Mahathir’s ruling Umno party and that the local media had largely glossed over.
Today the Malaysian government keeps publications in check through a renewable licensing system, which gives the government the power to suspend media licences for arbitrary and ill-defined reasons.
Singapore, meanwhile, enlists some of Asia’s strictest legislation aimed at the media and by default is home to one of the region’s tamest press corps. The Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and the Official Secrets Act allow for detention without trial and other discretionary powers which keep the press in check – though, it should be noted, Singapore has not jailed any journalists since the late 1970s, as far as I am aware.
Singapore’s repression is more institutionalised, however, which has engendered a culture of consent among the country’s media – something Mr Thaksin has often said he longs for. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 requires that newspaper companies are publicly listed, and their shares are divided into ordinary and management shares, where the government decides who gets those management shares.
This ensures that the government has a say in the composition of the board of directors of newspaper companies, and through them, in the appointment of group editors and newspaper chief editors. Those who rise to the top editorial positions are unfailingly pro-establishment and conservative. This legislation explains why Singapore’s newspapers are universally pro-government and also why the government remains free from the press.
So could this perhaps be what Mr Thaksin’s business associates have in mind in buying up shares in the Nation, Bangkok Post and Matichon?
What is more overtly apparent is that Mr Thaksin’s government is now following Lee Kuan Yew’s example of using the courts to cow independent journalism. On several occasions foreign publications that reported critically of the Singaporean government have been charged with criminal defamation, with large monetary damages attached. Last year the Economist paid US$230,000 (9.4 billion baht) in damages and apologised for an article it ran mentioning [words deleted for legal reasons] upon the appointment of Lee Kuan Yew’s wife, Ho Ching, as chief executive of the government’s largest investment arm.
Now how many articles here in Thailand have we seen recently on the Shinawatra family’s rapidly expanding business empire cast with the allegation of possible nepotism? Few and far between, I’m afraid.
Singapore’s courts have historically ruled unfailingly in the government’s favour, giving rise to a pervasive culture of self-censorship across both the local and foreign media.
The unfortunate result has been a domesticated domestic press – no affront to the Straits Times, which presents solid regional news coverage but is wholly vacant on critical reporting on Singapore itself – and a foreign press corps that doesn’t dare report critically on the [words deleted for legal reasons] that underpins Singapore’s development model.
The parallels, I’m afraid, are striking. The big picture point here is that indications are that Thailand, with the recent passage of the executive decree which empowers the government to censor the news for reasons of national security, and with the recent string of criminal libel suits, is now firmly headed down Malaysia’s and Singapore’s same repressive track.
Thailand is neither Singapore nor Malaysia, point granted. Thailand has a strong history of independent journalism, particularly in the 1990s, when hard-hitting reporting drove at least two corrupt administrations from power before their terms were up. Mr Thaksin, no doubt, is aware of this historical fact.
But I would also mention that it takes time to destroy an institution and it is not easy to recover once the press has been co-opted.
Singapore’s and Malaysia’s tame press corps, which have remain cowed even with the recent generational shift in both countries to a softer brand of authoritarian rule, attest to this.
Singapore recently ranked 147 out of 167 countries in a press freedom survey conducted by Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres. Malaysia ranked in at 122.
As the monetary damages sought in defamation suits in Thailand spiral ever higher, it is inevitable that many journalists will or already have faced similar editorial pressure to tone down coverage of Mr Thaksin’s government. Make no mistake about it, that’s Mr Thaksin’s goal. I know that I personally came under severe internal pressure from Dow Jones editors to tone down our coverage of Mr Thaksin’s government while working as a journalist with the Asian Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review. And I have been made aware of similar actions taken against at least one other Bangkok-based foreign correspondent, who similarly worked with a renowned international publication.
For the future of press freedom in Thailand, it is essential that both local and foreign reporters not yield to the government’s pressure and adopt unspoken policies of self-censorship. This government particularly fears international and English language exposure of its chronic mismanagement, alleged corruption and well-documented human rights abuses.
It’s crucial for Thailand’s democratic future, as well as the credibility of news organisations, that they report faithfully on the controversial and often outrageous news this government habitually generates.
Shawn W. Crispin, the former Bangkok bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is currently the Asia programme consultant with the New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists.