Thailand: Media Corruption And The Ullrich Case

1999

Dr Glen Lewis

The Wolfgang Ullrich case has been all over the Thai media recently. Ullrich, a German real estate developer and restaurant owner in Pattaya, was arrested last September for illegal entry and has been held without trial since then. Charges against him may involve international drug smuggling and bribery of officials and politicians. The case involves issues of the integrity of the Thai justice system and of the media.

During last month’s parliamentary censure debate, the substantive issue was the passage of the financial reform bills required by the IMF. However attention was distracted by Chalerm Yubamrung, deputy leader of the New Aspiration Party, introducing the Ullrich case as an example of government maladministration. Chalerm claimed Interior Minister Sanan had taken a bribe of 22 million baht to assist Ullrich.

The case, with Ullrich’s alleged Pattaya criminal connections, his Thai wife Rosarin’s story that has been given soap opera treatment by the Thai media, and the alleged bribery charges, has become something of a hydra-headed beast in Thai politics. When one story dies down, another sprouts.

There have been two major twists to the story. First, Chalerm briefly occupied the centre of media attention with his charges. Then the government counter-alleged that Chalerm had forged necessary Sor Dor 43 documents to allow his two sons to enter the police force and avoid military service. During the Chavalit Premiership Chalerm had been in charge of the ill-fated media monitoring agency, so some journalists have enjoyed his current problems.

Second, a Bangkok Post journalist at Pattaya has been implicated as a go-between for Ullrich’s lawyers. This complaint has been followed by charges against journalists at Thai Rath and Krungthep Thurakij of involvement in a separate bribery case with the Minister of Industry Suwat Liptapallop. Further, the managers of Army TV Channel 5, who launched a costly and unsuccessful global satellite TV service in March 1998, have been charged with corruption. It also has been announced that Channel 5’s books will be audited openly for the first time.

These cases are unrelated, yet the economic crisis has made many journalists unemployed and media corruption more likely. While the Senate has now passed the Bankruptcy Reform Bill, an Australian company auditor working on implementation of IMF reforms was shot and killed in the provinces in mid-March. Another recent crime against foreigners was the kidnapping of a North Korean diplomat and his family under mysterious circumstances that seem to have included Thai police involvement.

How the Thai judiciary, police and the media will cope with this new surge of post-recession crime remains to be seen.

WATCHPOINT: The related processes of financial restructuring and political reform are less likely to succeed if they are handicapped by media corruption and attacks on foreigners.

 

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