Crisis of Credibility for the Media

Source: The Nation

Thailand will be counting the costs of this month for many years to come.

February 2004 will be remembered as one of the darkest months in the history of the Thai media. A ruling by an arbitration panel not only favoured compensation for iTV but also allowed the television network alter its news-heavy programming in favour of more entertainment. And then on Friday the board of directors of Post Publishing Co removed Veera Prateepchaikul as editor of the Bangkok Post. The journalists on the English-language daily issued an unprecedented statement seeking editorial independence. But it appears that political interference and business interests have won the day.

The government’s attempts to rein in the media are plain not only to the Thai public but to the entire international community. The Thai press is retreating into the kind of government-controlled creature found in Malaysia and Singapore, places where the media are known as backers of the government’s authority, policies and political continuity.

The cost of the government’s efforts to silence the media are mounting for the Thai people, both rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural. With the ruling party’s majority in the House of Representatives, as well as its stepped-up attempts to dominate the Senate, the independent agencies established to check the government’s power and the police and military establishments, authoritarianism in democratic guise is showing signs of winning the fight for Thailand. So what is the cost?

First and most visible is the use of the government budget. To counter public apprehension of its intention to tighten its grip on the country, the government will increase spending on populist programmes to win public sentiment. This wasteful spending of public money is not for the long-term good of the country but an attempt to confuse the public’s perception of the government’s intentions.

Second, it will be that much easier to sweep under the carpet any mistakes by ministers and those working on behalf of the government. A prime example was the initial handling of the bird-flu crisis. The press was deliberately kept in the dark about the outbreak, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of people who did not know about the threat posed by the disease. To date, no ministers or officials have been punished for failing to issue timely public warnings, nor have any of the people accused of covering up the disease.

Third, direct corruption and policy corruption have been allowed to thrive. People and businesses associated with the government appear to be getting overlooked when it comes to their unscrupulous dealings, some of which relate to lucrative state privatisation projects.

The public is at the point now where conflict of interest is a matter of course, as if this country had no government. The degree of the rule of law has plunged. This is at a time when Malaysia has managed to achieve respectability for the way Kuala Lumpur has started going after corrupt politicians and officials.

Fourth, nepotism is on the rise as people seek out the favour of ministers who can reward them for loyalty. Deals are struck with those who are “for the government”, and outsiders are shunned.

Last but not least is Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s desire to establish himself as Thailand’s unchallenged leader. He says no wrong and does no wrong. People close to him now say the prime minister’s every word is taken to refer to some future action. Personality signals like this have come to dominate every branch of the government.

Thaksin may claim to have no direct involvement in the iTV ruling or the shake-up at the Bangkok Post. But that is not enough.

It would be in the interest of any good, respectable and tolerant leader to ensure that a station like iTV kept to its original mission as a news station and that the credibility of the Bangkok Post, one of the country’s windows to the outside world, not be impaired.

Yet Thaksin remains above these decisive moments in modern Thai history. His belief that democracy is less important than the people’s happiness is an illusion of power. He is not rebuilding or reforming Thailand. He is merely re-branding it in the worst possible way.

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