Populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's press freedom record has been less than stellar since he took office in 2001. His political and financial interference, legal intimidation, and coercion continued to have a chilling effect on critical voices in the Thai press in 2004.
Critics accuse Thaksin and his administration of creeping authoritarianism, cronyism, and blurring the lines between business interests and politics. Local journalists told CPJ they routinely receive phone calls from government officials trying to influence editorials and reporting. They said Thaksin's powerful government and his allies often threaten to withdraw advertising from publications in retaliation for negative articles. As a result, local journalists said, self-censorship has increased dramatically during the last four years.
The decision of executives at the Bangkok Post to remove Veera Prateepchaikul, editor of the influential English-language daily, is a direct example of such interference, local sources said. His reassignment in February stunned and outraged the local press and was a major blow to the Bangkok Post staff, which sent a letter of protest to management. Veera, who goes by his first name, is also president of Thailand's journalists' union, the Thai Journalists Association.
He was moved to another job in the newspaper's parent corporation after he ran several critical articles about Thaksin, including a front-page December 2003 story that featured negative comments by Thailand's king about Thaksin's "arrogance," according to the English-language daily The Nation. Journalists at the Post interpreted the firing as a blow to their editorial independence—and as a warning to others. Post Editor-in-Chief Pichai Chuensuksawadi said in an interview with the U.S. government–funded Voice of America that commercial pressure was put on the paper to remove Veera.
The Bangkok Post and other Thai media also carried negative coverage of Thaksin's handling of the Asian bird flu crisis. At the beginning of the year, the press lambasted Thaksin for his delayed response to and cover-up of the bird flu outbreak in Thailand in late 2003, when he withheld information about the crisis in an attempt to protect the country's poultry export business. In an editorial in early February, The Nation wrote that Thaksin's administration had been "caught red-handed lying," and that the prime minister had "foisted deceptive schemes on the Thai public." However, fearful of government retaliation, the press stopped criticizing Thaksin's actions and began to toe the government line about the bird flu epidemic—that the administration had done all it could to combat the outbreak, according to the BBC.
According to local news reports, The Nation has also come under economic pressure to soften its critical stance toward Thaksin. In 2003, one of his associates bought a 20 percent stake in the Nation Multimedia Group, which owns the paper.
In one of the biggest legal cases of 2004, Shin Corp. sued media advocate Supinya Klangnarong for criminal defamation. The charges came after she made negative remarks about the Thaksin administration's favorable policies toward the company, which Thaksin founded in the 1980s, in an interview with the Thai-language daily the Thai Post in July 2003. The corporation also sued the newspaper and three of its editors, Thaweesin Sathitrattanacheewin, Roj Ngammaen, and Kannikar Wiriyakul.
Although Thaksin resigned from Shin Corp. and transferred his assets when he took office in February 2001, his family still runs the company. In her interview, Supinya said that, based on the sharp rise in Shin Corp.'s profits since Thaksin took office, the company has benefited directly from his policies, which represents a conflict of interest. A court ruled in June that the criminal defamation case brought by Shin Corp. against the four defendants could proceed, and they could face up to two years in prison if convicted.
Then in August, Shin Corp. filed a 400 million baht ($10 million) civil libel lawsuit against the four defendants. At a second hearing on the criminal charges in September, the case was delayed until after the February 2005 general elections. At an October hearing, proceedings in the civil case were also postponed until after the criminal trial is completed in 2005.
Supinya, the secretary-general of the nongovernmental organization Campaign for Popular Media Reform, told CPJ that these delays were positive developments intended by the court to foster out-of-court settlements. She says she is hopeful that her case can help reform Thailand's libel and media laws. Post Editor Ngammaen says that the paper was battling about 40 lawsuits, including the Supinya case, at year's end.
In January, The Nation reported that Thaksin called International Herald Tribune writer Philip Bowring "idiot scum" for criticizing his economic policies. Then in May, Thaksin condemned foreign coverage of the April uprisings in Thailand's restive southern provinces, saying, "The foreign media are very bad," and, "They are never fair and always write inaccurate reports," according to the Bangkok Post. Police killed more than 100 suspected Islamic militants in gunbattles in the Muslim-dominated region. Thaksin blamed the violence on local bandits and denied press reports about international Islamic connections to the attacks. He has also called on the media to put the interests of Thailand first in their reporting.
The government came under intense local press criticism again for its heavy-handed tactics in the fall, when tension flared once more in the south. On October 25, the army broke up protests in the town of Tak Bai near the Malaysian border. Eighty-five Thai Muslims died in military custody. The government claimed that the military had acted with restraint, but days later, The Nation ran a front-page photograph showing a soldier firing on protesters.
In response, police in Tak Bai invited journalists to a press conference on November 4, but instead of a briefing, the journalists were detained and interrogated about the events of October 25 for four hours, according to local press accounts. Police confiscated the journalists' notes and film and questioned them about the identity of The Nation photographer who took the controversial picture.
In December, the government proposed a controversial special decree that would allow police in the southern regions to conduct searches without arrest warrants and tap phone lines without court orders, according to a report in The Nation. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a regional press freedom organization based in Bangkok, criticized the decree, claiming that it might be used to control reporting on future conflicts in the area.
Wired communications helped facilitate urgent news updates after Thailand suffered the destructive tsunami in late December. With thousands of missing and dead locals and foreigners, the government relied on the Internet to keep relief agencies and families informed with up-to-date Web sites, according to the BBC.