Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
The overwhelming victory of Thailand’s populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) in the 6 February general election is raising concerns about the future direction of democracy in the country.
In particular, political and media observers are concerned that the Prime Minister’s overbearing influence over the Thai media, coupled with a historic mandate that threatens to evolve into a de-facto one-party system in Thailand, could weaken the country’s democratic institutions and put tremendous pressure on the national press to surrender its hard-won rights and freedoms.
Thaksin and the TRT are on pace to corner at least two-thirds of the seats in the Southeast Asian kingdom’s 500-member House of Representatives.
Political analysts say that the ruling coalition has so much power that its future policies will be virtually immune from censure. Thailand’s checks-and-balances have been weakened, starting with an opposition whose representation in parliament can be all but ignored by the majority.
Thaksin’s victory statements have so far been magnanimous. He assured the Thai media that he is intent on “listening” to his critics, and to working with the opposition.
The real indicator of his respect for democratic institutions and checks-and-balances, however, lies outside of parliament. A review of his handling of the media is more telling.
On a personal level, Thaksin’s intolerance of criticism is notorious. He portrays critics and opponents as enemies of the state, and has often suggested that the Thai press should be less critical of his programs, and more sympathetic to the nation-building efforts of government.
In the meantime, however, over the last four years, Thaksin has managed to tighten his control over the press and media.
In 2003, Shin Corp., the media and telecommunications giant owned by Thaksin’s family, took over Thailand’s only independent television channel, iTV. All the other five television stations in the country remain under state and military ownership.
In 2004, Shin Corp. sued a media advocate for $10 million, after she questioned a sudden spike in Shin Corp’s profits coinciding with Mr. Thaksin’s rise to power.
Since, 2002, critics of Thaksin in the Thai Post and Naew Na have been treated to a series of criminal libel suits.
Meanwhile, Thaksin and his friends in the business community are widely perceived in Thailand to be exerting influence on the print media, either by applying an advertising squeeze on newspapers or by directly influencing management and editorial decisions via the papers’ respective boards.
Thailand’s two leading English-language dailies—The Nation and the Bangkok Post—have been pressured to tone down their anti-Thakin tone. Revamps in the executive boards of both companies were believed to have been to engineered to soften their critical views of government.
With Thaksin’s reelection, the Thai media is bracing for yet more assaults on their independence.
In 2003, the Securities Exchange of Thailand reported that over 10 percent of the Nation group’s shares were already held by the family of Thaksin’s close aid, then Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit, making them the third largest shareholder after the publishing group’s original founders. Insiders say Suriya’s shares could have multiplied by now, and with it, Thaksin’s potential influence over the Nation Group.
In all, media practitioners and free press advocates in Thailand say they are bracing for a continuation of a government campaign against the press. The difference now, they say, is that the assaults will come from an even more powerful government.
It remains to be seen how much of the fears will come to pass, and how well the reinvigorated Thaksin government can respect the role of the media in Thai democracy.