16 August 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
The Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has denounced a Thai government decision to pursue criminal libel lawsuits against Thailand’s leading English-language newspaper, despite the Bangkok Post’s having earlier recanted a news article that was the basis for the Thai government’s complaint.
The Bangkok Post on 10 August retracted a published article that reported “major cracks” in runways being built for Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport. The Post admitted that the story was wrong, and published a front-page apology alongside a banner article that prominently explained government’s take on the matter.
Despite the Post’s offer of amends, on 15 August, the Airport of Thailand (AoT) and the New Bangkok International Airport Co. (NBIA), the government agencies responsible for the airport’s construction, filed a criminal lawsuit against Post Publishing Plc and its editor Kowit Sanandang. The plaintiffs also asked the court to compel the Post to shoulder a global media campaign to redeem the airport project’s image. Lawyers for the AoT and the NBIA said they want the Post to pay for full- page ads in countries like United State, England and Italy, as well as one- hour clarifications in media networks like CNBC, CCTV and BBC every day for 15 days. On top of this, the lawyers said they are contemplating seeking B1 billion (US$25 million) in damages from the Post.
In a statement, SEAPA said the government suits and threats go beyond seeking to rectify a mistake. “It is clear that the government’s course of action is to harass the press,” SEAPA said. “This heavy-handed tactic will have a chilling effect on press freedom in Thailand.”
SEAPA noted that the case against the Post comes just as the media, the public, and the Thai parliament are seeking to intensify scrutiny of the contracts that were awarded in line with the construction of the new airport.
“At this juncture, a healthy appreciation for the role of the press in ensuring transparency is needed,” SEAPA said. “Unfortunately, the excuse that the government has seized to send a threatening message to the Post and the rest of the Thai media may signal government’s growing discomfort with the amount of questions and scrutiny this project is drawing.”
The airport authorities said they have no intention to harass the media, and insist that they merely want to restore national and international confidence in the airport project. “But if that were the case, they should realize that transparency, accessibility, and an environment of openness are the best things to assure the public and investors,” SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay said. “Government should show that it is not afraid of questions or stories—not even of a very few that may be off the mark.” SEAPA said the Bangkok Post showed responsibility and professionalism in retracting its story and apologizing. This shows “the value and power of self-regulation in a free press environment, and precisely demonstrates how crude and obsolete criminal lawsuits are as a recourse for disciplining the media,” Alampay said.
“The onus is now on the Thai government to not use that professionalism as an excuse to intimidate the media as a whole. Indeed, the challenge for the government is to respond with more openness and transparency, and to acknowledge that a free and vibrant press remains an integral part of development and progress,” SEAPA said.