Thailand: Thaksin Tangles With The Media - Again


Dr Glen Lewis

Since King Bumiphol's birthday speech on 5 December 2001 a train of events involving the Thaksin government's relations with the media has spiralled downwards towards an unprecedented level of conflict.

The King had warned of a 'catastrophe' facing the nation. His comments were widely interpreted as thinly-veiled reproach of the Prime Minister for being unable to accept public criticism. Comments on the strained relations between the King and the Prime Minister made in the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) on 10 January - followed by a cover story in the same journal highly critical of Thaksin - led to a charge of lese majeste brought against two of the FEER journalists.

The downward spiral of government-media conflict has since accelerated. The journalists were threatened with being declared personae non gratae and their visas were briefly revoked. Then on 27 February one of Thaksin's main critics, Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri, gave an interview on the Nation Group's radio station 90.5 FM that was also intended to be carried on UBC 8, the Nation's pay-TV news channel. The UBC broadcast was stopped for 'technical reasons'. Then on 4 March, when 90.5 FM broadcast another interview critical of Thaksin with the Democrat's leader-apparent Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Defence Energy Department banned further political broadcasts on the station.

Another major attack on media critical of Thaksin came with the announcement on 25 February of an inquiry into alleged illegal activities by the Anti-Money Laundering Office. AMLO requested Thai banks to provide financial information about some of Thaksin's leading critics - notably Suthichai Yoon, Thepchai Yong and Sopon Onkgara of the Nation Group, as well as Roj Ngammaen of the Thai Post and Warin Poonsiriwong the director of the Thai daily Naew Na. Although Thaksin denies any responsibility for banning the Nation's radio broadcasts or for the AMLO inquiry, he is Chair of the Committee that supervises the agency.

AMLO's inquiry also has targeted 64 members of Non-Governmental Organisations, some of whom are involved in lobbying against the government on controversial issues, such as the Bor Nok power plant, the Community Forests Bill, and the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline. So much media heat is being expended on the AMLO inquiry that it is drawing attention away from other substantive issues. These include the interminable delay in appointing a National Broadcasting Commission, alleged corruption in tourism and fisheries administration, and problems in the government's health, education and economic policies. Blaming the media messenger is no substitute for good governance.

WATCHPOINT: Will Thaksin's growing hostility to the media undermine the movement towards political democratisation begun with the 1997 Constitution?


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