Nation Will No Longer Talk Politics Lack of Freedom in Coverage Cited

[Source: Bangkok Post]

The Nation Channel is taking all its political coverage off the air following a ban on its radio programmes, saying the political climate did not allow it to work with independence.

“We will temporarily suspend our political programmes until we can be certain there will not be any interference, either directly and indirectly,” the Nation Group said in a statement.

The Nation Multimedia Group, which operates Nation Channel UBC 8, a pay-TV service, also broadcasts news and comments on the FM 90.5 MHz station. It has decided to remove four key anchormen, including group editor Suthichai Yoon, from its radio programmes and agreed to focus on non-political issues, sources said.

The three others are the Nation’s deputy managing director Sorayuth Suthassanachinda, Kanok Ratwongsakul and Peerapat Wattanapirom.

In return, the Defence Ministry’s Defence Energy Department, owner of radio FM 90.5 MHz station, has allowed the Nation Group to continue using its frequency.

The department on Monday ordered Smart Bomb Co, the station’s concessionaire, to ban all programmes provided by the Nation Group, claiming it had repeatedly criticised the government in “unconstructive ways”.

But the Nation Group will not be allowed to use its name on air. All programmes’ titles must be changed. For example, the group’s flagship news programme in the morning, Gep Tok Chak Nation (Snippets from the Nation), must be changed to Gep Tok Chak Hong Khao (Snippets from the Newsroom), according to informed sources at Smart Bomb.

The Nation Group’s statement said it believed the ban on its radio programmes was caused by its interviews with Sqn-Ldr Prasong Soonsiri on Feb 27 and with Democrat MP Abhisit Vejjajiva on March 4. Sqn-Ldr Prasong, director of the Naew Na daily and a strong critic of the Thaksin government, was believed to be the “man with a pipe” accused by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of providing information to reporters of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The magazine’s Jan 10 edition was accused of publishing “inappropriate articles” which led to the revocation of visas of its Bangkok Bureau chief Shawn Crispin and reporter Rodney Tasker.

During the interview with Sqn-Ldr Prasong, which was aired both on Nation Channel and FM 90.5 MHz radio, the TV broadcast was abruptly cut off. United Broadcasting Corporation, the cable operator, claimed “technical problems” were the cause. However, the interview was still heard on the radio, and the Nation Group believes this led to the ban on its programmes by the military.

Meanwhile, a stock market analyst noted the Nation Group’s TV and radio programmes were popular for their strong politics-oriented content. “If the programmes’ contents are changed, they will lose their popularity.”

He said the Nation Group’s revenues from its TV and radio programmes accounted for 10-15% of the group’s total income. “More importantly, the group uses its radio and TV programmes to heavily promote its new product, Kom Chad Luek newspaper, so the ban will inevitably affect its new daily.”

The Nation Group’s stock fell 7.06% to close at 15.80 baht yesterday, with shares worth about 78 million baht changing hands.

PM’s Office Minister Thammarak Issarangkura na Ayuthaya said authorities could shut down UBC 8 because the station had openly violated a ban on commercials. Gen Thammarak said the Mass Communications Organisation of Thailand had already delivered a warning, but denied the move had anything to do with the channel’s strong criticism of the government.

Senator Chirmsak Pinthong said the government’s continuing censorship salvos were meant to “strike fear in the hearts” of newspapers and other media in order to silence their criticism.

He urged all media, particularly newspapers, to report or write comments promoting freedom of the press and condemning censorship on their front pages every day. “We have to make the people see they cannot take part in politics as long as freedom of the press is under threat,” Mr Chirmsak said.

Pairoj Polpetch, secretary-general of the Civil Liberty Union, said the media might adopt self-censorship to avoid intimidation and this would endanger freedom of expression.

Charan Ditthapichai, of the National Human Rights Commission, said he would propose his panel take action against the government which, displeased with the way it was being portrayed, had opted to end the negative presentations by breaching freedom of the press _ a violation of articles 39 and 41 of the constitution.

The Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association yesterday handed an open letter to the prime minister calling on the government to stop intimidating the press.

They demanded the Defense Energy Department explain clearly why it ordered Smart Bomb to halt the Nation Group’s radio programmes.

The prime minister denied he had ordered the ban.