29 August 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Bangkok
On 29 August 2005, Thailand’s English-language daily “Bangkok Post” dismissed Sermsuk Kasitipradit, a desk editor who was responsible for a flawed report about cracks in the runway of Thailand’s new international airport. The dismissal followed his resistance to pressure from the newspaper’s management to resign.
The “Post” management called in Sermsuk, the Post’s assignment editor for military and national security news, at 10 a.m. (local time) to receive a verbal notice of his dismissal, according to a source at the “Post”.
Sermsuk was one of the editors responsible for the 9 August front-page story alleging there were severe cracks at touchdown points on the Suvarnabhumi airport runway. It quoted an anonymous source as saying American experts brought in by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra recommended the reconstruction of the runway.
The paper was forced to issue a retraction and an apology after the report was found to be wrong. Despite the paper’s quick retraction, on 15 August the Airport of Thailand and the New Bangkok International Airport filed a criminal libel suit against the paper and its chief editor and threatened it
with a civil libel suit.
The dismissal of Sermsuk prompted a protest from about 100 “Post” editorial staff members, who demanded that management provide a written explanation for its decision. The management later handed Sermsuk the written letter, citing the newspaper’s tarnished reputation as a reason for the sacking.
Sermsuk told gathered staff that he was honest in reporting on the runway’s cracks and his report was intended on scrutinising the government’s performance, which is in line with the duty of the press.
The 50-year old veteran journalist told a press conference, held at the Thai Journalists Association later in the afternoon, that he would fight in labour court against the “Post” management’s unfair treatment in order to protect press freedom from abuses by the publisher.
He said Post Publishing PLC’s deputy chief executive officer David Armstrong should also be held responsible for the report since he was part of a newsroom discussion to decide whether or not the report should be published.
Sermsuk said management also ignored a recommendation made by the paper’s internal disciplinary committee that the two editors’ salaries be frozen and their annual bonus withheld.
He said he believed interference in the “Post”‘s editorial independence has mounted over the last two years and now reached the “dark age” level. “In my 22-year career as a journalist, I have never encountered this much pressure and interference from the management and outsiders before,” he added.
On 24 August, news editor Chadin Thepaval, who was in charge as duty editor a day before the report was published, resigned over pressure from the administration.
Armstrong later issued a statement to the staff, defending the management decision to punish the responsible editors. He said the decision was not part of “conspiracy theories” but an act to “uphold the highest standards of journalism and to ensure the principles of responsibility and accountability
are applied at the newspaper in a meaningful way.”
Armstrong said the story was published in the face of doubts about the reliability of its source and about the “US experts” who had supposedly been studying the condition of the runway.
“This was not a simple mistake,” Armstrong said. “The number of errors and misjudgments in the lead-up to the publication of the story was so great that firm action was both justified and necessary.