PM Must Guarantee Media Freedom

1 March 2004
Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has two approaches for dealing with the media – one is to demonise journalists and the other is to treat any issue relating to freedom of expression as a private-sector one. Since taking power in early 2001 he has been quite effective on both lines of attack, even though he continues to appear surprised by accusations of media meddling.

When the US State Department last week released a critical report on Thailand’s human rights record, highlighting in particular the lethal war on drugs, Thaksin fumed. He denounced the report as unacceptable because it had used information from the media. He complained that the report was full of inaccuracies.

This was not the first time he blamed the media. He also said the media had exaggerated the violence and strife in the South. He accused it of sensationalising the conflict at the expense of the country’s security and religious harmony.

Strangely, it has never occurred to Thaksin, a trained criminologist, that setting up an independent commission to investigate the drug killings would be his best exit strategy from widespread allegations that extra-judicial executions are now acceptable in Thailand.

The media is often only able to barely scratch the surface. Although coverage of the bird-flu outbreak revealed a systematic cover-up, the facts about the outbreak have not been fully disclosed and there has been no accountability. News coverage only traced the periphery.

Ironically, all information on these issues reported in the Thai media came from public officials themselves.

Thaksin is painting himself into a corner by accusing the media of inaccurate reporting.

Over the past two years he has assumed greater and greater control over news dissemination and has attempted to monopolise the media. So, if media reports have been inaccurate, as Thaksin has frequently alleged, then perhaps it is time for some genuine self-reflection. If reporters quote the prime minister verbatim, how can they be guilty of misinterpretation?

At the same time, foreigners and diplomats are not taking Thaksin’s tactics lying down. The government had its eye blackened in January when the European Union issued a statement chastising Thai leaders for their lack of transparency in handling the bird-flu outbreak. In plain English, our government lied to the world.

A poll last week by Assumption University found that the government’s mishandling of the distressing situation in the South and the bird-flu crisis have eroded Thaksin’s popularity and also his creditability. If this trend continues, it will cost him dearly.

The government and its slick advisers, some of whom are former editors and journalists, should urge Thaksin to issue a statement guaranteeing press freedom and access to information. This is not an unusual thing for the leader of a democratic country to do.

Given the overwhelming power he enjoys, such an assurance, even a verbal one, would be sufficient to restrain the hands – both visible and invisible – that are interfering with the media, with or without Thaksin’s knowledge. If he is not a dictator, as he has often been called, he must demonstrate clearly that he supports media freedom.

However, the prime minister has shown little respect for the ideal of an open and tolerant society with myriad points of view during his three years at the top. Perhaps a fundamental discomfort with transparency explains why the government continues to “privatise” issues relating to freedom of expression.

The Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcasters Association have documented nearly two dozens cases in which editors and print and broadcast journalists have been dismissed or transferred, or their work tampered with, to appease the government. In almost all cases, the media outlets themselves kept silent.

This is something of a Catch-22. Owners of media outlets prefer to deny any government interference rather than face the guillotine. After all, they have plenty of political and business baggage to consider.

Chatchawan Kong-udom, publisher of Siamrath weekly news magazine, had the audacity to admit over the weekend that he regularly censored news in his magazine that he deemed to be critical to Thaksin and his government. In short, he said he sanitised the news for the good of the country. He issued a challenge demanding to know what was wrong with this practice. Other publishers have been more discreet.

As things stand, issues relating to freedom of expression have been privatised. If an editor is removed or transferred, it is explained in terms of internal arrangements or business expansion plans. If the content is censored, it is due to the editor’s personal choice rather than outside pressure. However, Chatchawan minced no words when he said that he would dismiss any columnist who used offensive language to describe the prime minister.

With such a strong shield held in place by a willing media, Thaksin and his government are able to stay above the fray – as though they had nothing to do with the interference in reporting and commenting on the news. If all media outlets behaved this way, the government would have a field day. It would be able to operate without restraint in a culture of impunity.

Chatchawan’s revelation sets a precedent for a media reduced to the role of collaborator or cheerleader. In business jargon, this arrangement could be called a strategic partnership between the media and the government. It will not be long before other media business owners jump on the lucrative bandwagon, establishing “a coalition of the willing” to protect Thaksin.

In a democracy, both politicians and the media have a moral imperative to do their work professionally and ethically. Thaksin argues that he has a full mandate to run this country because he won the support of 11 million voters.

However, if public consent is so essential, then the public must be fully informed by an independent media – free of government or any other control – for that consent to be meaningful. But is the prime minister a man of his word?

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