9 March 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
ALERT UPDATE – THAILAND On 9 March 2005, SEAPA hailed a Supreme Court decision ordering iTV, Thailand’s only private television station, to rehire 21 newsroom staff it dismissed in 2001 as a victory for press freedom.
The 21 staff – reporters, news anchors and production crew – were sacked for various reasons, ranging from insubordination and criticising management policy to protesting against government interference. Some were dismissed because their posts had become redundant.
The Supreme Court said it believed they were sacked because they applied to become members of the station’s labour union.
The 8 March ruling is not just a legal victory for the workers but also a triumph for press freedom. It is a strong affirmation of the need for journalists and other media advocates to continually protect hard-won press freedom rights, especially at a time when restraints are increasingly being imposed on them, said SEAPA.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the 7 February 2001 dismissal of the 21 workers was illegal. The management of iTV, which is owned by the family of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said they would reinstate the staff members and pay their back wages.
“This victory will significantly breathe new life into an industry which over the last four years has been enfeebled by heavy-handed political interference and subtle business co-optation,” said SEAPA.
The Thai Broadcast Journalists’ Association said in a separate statement, “The Supreme Court’s decision represents a concrete step towards society’s respect of the letter and spirit of the 1997 Constitution, which fully guarantees press freedom.”
The Supreme Court’s decision was prominently featured by the media, with the story getting headline treatment in almost all local newspapers on 9 March. The front pages ran pictures of the sacked iTV journalists hugging one another after the long-awaited verdict was read.
While they all felt that justice had been served, some were ambivalent about going back to work at a station where the management allowed their editorial independence to be compromised by political and commercial interests.
One of the journalists, Sakoldet Silapong, was quoted as saying he was willing to return to work but also suggested that for iTV to be a truly independent news station, the Thaksin family would have to sell its shares in the company.
The victory came as local media and civil society groups raised fears that the 6 February re-election of Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party would give him free rein to rule the country for the next four years without checks and balances.
The sacking of the iTV news staff was a prelude to the reckless interference and threats against the media that characterised the first four years of the Thaksin administration.