About a month prior to, and after the new Thai government led by deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was sworn in on 20 August, the number of victims of polarization in the Thai media, dictated by waves of political and commercial pressures, has grown, taking the media’s shrinking independence to a new low.
Among the examples include the resignation of Pinyo Rungsuriyathama, a hard-hitting political and current affairs program host from Thailand’s public broadcasting service TV THAI following criticisms by the station’s boss and audience that he favored Peua Thai de facto leader Thaksin in his interview broadcast prior to the elections. Then there is the termination by Matichon Publishing Group of the employment contract of its news veteran and keen investigative journalist Prasong Lertrattanawisut. In another case, emails were circulated among members of the Red-Shirt movement calling on them to bully a Channel 7 TV reporter who approached the new prime minister, Yingluck, with a harsh question.
This ostracism of media was made worse by a scandalous email communication that implicated a number of local newspapers and television stations as benefitting from Puea Thai Party’s reward scheme prior to the July 4 general elections.
Nevertheless, the most tragic outcome of all is the pull-out of Matichon from the Press Council of Thailand (TPCT) to protest what it considered was the council’s “biased investigation” into the scandalous emails. While the investigation did not find evidence that anyone was guilty of receiving rewards from Peua Thai, it did verify that the email account sent by Peua Thai Party’s officer was real. However, the investigation did go too far, as critics put it, to suggest Matichon’s pre-election coverage was more in favor of Puea Thai’s prime minister candidate Yingluck over her Democrat rival, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The pull-out does represent a serious crack in the unity of Thai media, which five years ago reached its zenith when a business take-over of Thaksin’s business ally, Matichon by music entertainment giant GMM Grammy Entertainment Plc triggered an impassionate protest by the media community, who believed it was an attempt by GMM to hem in critics of Thaksin, an accusation the company denied.
Moreover, it deals a big blow to the self-regulatory approach that press advocates believe is strategically the best defense of press freedom in democratic societies. The media should be able to exercise self-criticism and come up with its own stringent measures to uphold ethical and professional standards.
In hindsight, the reinstatement of the pro-Thaksin government in the July election victory of Peua Thai Party alone can neither be blamed for this dramatic turn of events in the media industry nor are the incidents mere coincidences.
A festering structural problem in the media
These victims of ideological polarization in the media industry speak volumes of a long-neglected and accumulating structural problem that has beset the Thai media sector since the 1990’s — the emerging ownership patterns that see business, politics, and government interests converging to inevitably undermine the independence of the media and professional ethics.
Sunan Srichantra, a veteran journalist told a recent seminar in Bangkok that the decline of the media industry was partly attributable to senseless competition in the past two decades, which preferred speed over quality and caused rivalry between media outlets.
“The news approach is no longer based on a pure ideology but rather dictated by vested interests from political parties and politicians,” he said.
In the last decade,Matichon was not the only strong critic of Thaksin that has been attacked by his clique of political and business interests during his tenure as Prime minister between 2001 and 2006. Other media outlets such as the Nation Multimedia Group, which publishes The Nation, the Post Publishing Group, which publishes Bangkok Post and Manager Media Group had a fair share of business backlash by Thaksin’s manipulation of commercial and political pressures and lawsuits.
Compounded by waves of a sluggish economy and soaring paper prices, each media house’s financial struggle paid off with staff lay-off one after the other and pay-cuts. All of them opted to exploit the convergence of media technology to cut operational costs and to enhance business profit. Adversely, this survival mode only serves to compromise each media house’s investigative journalism skills, thus weakening their ability to expose corrupt politicians and scrutinize the government performance.
The Bangkok Post faced a dilemma to remain independent given its media ownership structure that is divided among Thaksin’s business allies: South China Morning Post, Central Group and GMM Grammy. In a big snub to its integrity, the newspaper opted to retract its report on Bangkok International Airport’s runway cracks during Thaksin’s tenure and lost one of its most trusted senior journalists, Sermsuk Kasithipradit, to avoid being sued for defamation by the Bangkok Airport Authority.
By 2004, Manager Media Group, which suffered financial losses, resorted to “militant journalism” to survive by banking on rising anti-Thaksin sentiment among royalists, Thaksin’s business rivals and the middle-class to generate advertisement revenues and donations.
The Nation Multimedia by far remains a strong critic of Thaksin and his succeeding political movement and game plan. The media conglomerate has opted to separate its business structure to mitigate the impact of commercial pressures on the whole media group.
Matichon Group was the latest to bleed and perhaps the hardest-hit.
Its business viability was severely attacked by what was perceived to be a hostile takeover in 2005 by GMM Grammy. Although the media and entertainment giant later in the same year sold some of its shares in the Matichon newspaper following an eruption of unprecedented protest by the media industry, the lingering effect of having to buy back its shares at higher prices made the company’s short-term financial recovery virtually impossible.
With Thai politics and the whole society being dragged into the polarized political climate after the 19 September military coup d’etat in 2006, which uprooted Thaksin’s political and business clout, the fragile Thai media industry found it virtually impossible to stay neutral.
In the last four years, readers and observers saw Matichon moving away from attacking Thaksin and his political and business cliques to being more sympathetic towards Thaksin.
Prior to the termination of Prasong’s employment contract, a number of Matichon Group’s veteran reporters resigned over pressure from the company’s business and management restructuring, not necessarily out of clashes with the executives over principles or ideology.
Prasong’s departure from Matichon Group, whose reputation for investigative journalism he helped build in the past 25 years, was seen as the last straw in the group’s business struggle to survive. Prasong’s piece that raised questions about Yingluck’s court testimony in Thaksin’s alleged asset concealment case was not allowed to go to print.
Critics were quick to conclude that Prasong is too difficult to handle when it comes to his persistence and thorough pursuit of corruptions stories, especially those that exposed Thaksin and his cliques. Prasong posted comments in his fall-back platform, Prasong.com, that he had no personal feelings against Thaksin but that he wanted to do investigative reporting to uncover irregularities in state and financial sectors.
Likewise, Pinyo’s resignation from TV THAI and the Red Shirts’ email intimidating the Channel 7 reporter reflect the same dilemma confronting the Thai media and the society over ideological polarization and media impartiality.
Media workers find themselves vulnerable to threats from several fronts — state censorship, political conflicts, capital and technology advancement. Yet, the most insidious one is from the company’s bosses.
Dr. Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand, a well-known media lecturer and critic of the media suggested in her recent article, published in Krungthep Thurakij business daily, that the media is not above scrutiny and it should be subject to public scrutiny by way of declaring its revenue sources, the same way cabinet members would have to declare their assets upon taking offices.
Union for journalists
In recent months, the media professional groups have gone through soul-searching and attempted to address the fall-out of the media industry (ownership structure) and preventing it from impacting on media workers’ welfare and job security. One of the proper remedy, long talked about but has never got off the ground, was to set up a media workers’ union as an umbrella organization to protect the interest of media workers.
However, it remains a distant possibility as the questions of model, mandate, legal personality and timing are subject to debate and consensus among the media community.
Several media outlets have in house trade unions but their bargaining powers are limited and could never shake the owners to the core. Bangkok Post has the oldest trade union but members of the union admitted that they could only bargain on welfare issues. During the dispute in Bangkok Post between the executives and Sermsuk Kasithipradit over his reporting on the runway cracks, the union could not save him from being dismissed. Sermsuk told a recent media seminar in Bangkok that his resignation was clearly a result of political pressure. Incidentally, the story on the runway crack was later proven to be true.
Thaipublica.com: a way forward?
Amid the bad news, a group of veteran journalists armed with investigative skills, including some who left Matichon earlier this year, formed Thaipublica.com, an investigative news website that promises to keep readers informed on three main issues: state and business governance and environment problems. It relies for now on grants from “angel businessmen”, who see the independence as crucial to promote state and business governance and transparency.
Sarinee Achavanuntakul, writer, blogger and researcher who co-founded Thaipublica.com explained that this news business model is the way forward for the industry since independent space is shrinking by day.
“Media people need to be innovative and creative in combining their investigative skills with advanced information technological platforms,” Sarinee told a gathering to launch the website on 14 September.
She however admitted that the current grant could cover operational and production costs for one to two years, and she and her team will need to source other financial support including subscription, advertisements and grants from the public, media and anti-corruption non-governmental organizations.
The emergence of Thaipublica.com, Prasong.com and the older Prachatai.com is a pattern of media migration from the mainstream into the online platform not only to offer plurality of news and opinions, but also to maintain independent space that the old media regime could no longer guarantee.
Nirand Yaowapa, webmaster of Manager online news website (manager.co.th) also noted this development but he sees this as a healthy trend towards the qualitative development of the online news, which still needs professional news content.
At a recent seminar in Bangkok organized by the Society of Online News Publishers and Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), he predicted that the newspaper industry would go paperless within 10 years or sooner in order to survive.
Some countries in the region that were already advanced in online and interactive news website like GMA7 News Network in Philippines witnessed the potential of the platform with social media composite in terms of accessibility and public interest. GMA7 News Multimedia Editor Paolo Ferrer said his website has developed to the extent that it could help track down victims of natural disasters and assist the authorities in disaster relief operation in the case of Ondoy typhoon that hit Manila last year, as well as locate electoral campaign movement of candidates.
But a crucial question is whether the new media platform would be compromised by capital pressure the same way the traditional media has had to, when it comes to helping democratize the news space and defending free speech.
SEAPA (http://www.seapabkk.org/) is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom andResponsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). SEAPA also has partners in Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.
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