25 February 2004
Source: The Nation
Rungruang Preechakul’s unceremonious resignation as editor of the longestablished Siamrath Weekly News magazine earlier this month might have seemed a lowkey affair, but yesterday he finally broke his silence and told The Nation things were not quite as they seemed.
The 48yearold exeditor of the country’s third largest weekly news magazine said his publication had been subjected to censorship on “every page” since the beginning of this month.
Without his knowledge, 30,000 copies of the 90page issue covering February 6 to 12, which was critical of the Thaksin administration’s handling of the bird flu outbreak, was recalled by the owner just hours before it was due to be distributed on February 5.
A heavily revised edition was then released on the newsstands a day late without anyone knowing what had transpired.
The content was changed from a report strongly critical of the government to a simple explanation of what the government had been doing to deal with the outbreak.
“All the existing reports had been removed and the lead story of that edition was rewritten … My only choice was to resign so the company might survive,” said Rungruang, referring directly to political pressure emanating from the Thaksin administration.
The following day – February 6 – Rungruang, who had been at the helm of the magazine for the past seven years, decided to get out. During his last days as caretaker editor of the next edition, he stayed away from national politics completely.
Its cover story dealt with ethnic fighting in Burma.
But the censors hounded him into the wee hours.
“The management told me they wanted to censor every page. Even at three in the morning, while I was writing my editorial, they came to see me to ensure I was not intending to drop a bomb [thing thuan] before I left. So I wrote about ethnic rifts in Burma instead.”
Twenty other columnists – including wellknown journalistcumwriter Chatcharin Chaiwat and SeaWritepoet laureate Praiwarin Khaongarm, along with four of the six fulltime editorial staff – also quietly left, or simply stopped writing for the magazine.
Chatchawan Kongudom, a Bangkok senator and owner and chairman of Siamrath Weekly News, was unavailable for comment.
Rungruang said it all began during last October’s Apec summit, when the government went into serious imagemanagement mode.
Siamrath stood out as one of the Thaksin administration’s most critical voices in the Thailanguage press. “We tried to inform the public that the government’s measures, be it rounding up the poor [homeless] people or dogs, were facile. We also questioned who was truly benefiting from any [governmentproposed] free trade agreement.
“I don’t know when it happened exactly, but the government eventually brought pressure to bear on Siamrath’s owner. >From then on any reports had to be carefully written and, if deemed negative towards the government, censored by the owner.”
Rungruang suggested Thailand was moving towards autocratic rule.
“It’s already autocratic today,” he said from his home province of Kanchanaburi. The loss of a free press in this country would make any future conflicts in society volatile, because no independent media would be left to bring it to the public’s attention, he said.
“Without a whistle or some form of outlet, water in a boiling kettle will simply explode,” Rungruang said. And that is how he believes conflicts in society will pan out under Thaksin.
He insisted, however, that his departure was amicable.
“I have discussed the matter with the [magazine’s] owner and he understood I wanted to stand fast by my journalistic principles. The owner thinks the magazine is not strong enough to withstand [pressure from the government]. And if we resist it further, then more pressure will befall us,” he said.
“Thus the only way [it can survive] is to change the style of the magazine, as you see it now, as a variety, soft [news] publication which praises the government when it can. Whatever we [once] might have stood and fought for will now be avoided … I don’t feel sorry this day has come. I have worked according to my heart and I am satisfied.”
“I won’t be doing anything now,” said Rungruang, who intends to lead a quiet life in Kanchanaburi.
“I know the storm is harsh and I would rather evade it … I have also risked much by talking to you. Someone might come and hit [kill] me.”