Magazine article Nieman Reports

Government Pressure and Thailand's Press: When a Leading Newspaper Editor Is Fired, Troubling Signs Point to the Interference of Business and Government Interests

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Government Pressure and Thailand's Press: When a Leading Newspaper Editor Is Fired, Troubling Signs Point to the Interference of Business and Government Interests

Article excerpt

The Bangkok Post seemed pretty well insulated from the government interference that was dogging the rest of the Thai media during Prime Minister Thaksin's rapid consolidation of power in the past three years. Centrist and pro-business, the Post has survived numerous coups d'etat, authoritarian military rulers, corrupt civilian administrations, and the excesses of mob-led democracy. Indeed, student activists in the 1970's referred to the Post as the "CIA" paper, an unfair and essentially xenophobic accusation based on one part truth (one of the Post's founders was a retired American OSS officer) and two parts rumor (they didn't like the way it reported, or failed to report, the events leading up to the bloody coup of October 6, 1976).

In contrast, the Post's main English-language rival, The Nation, founded by the young, ambitious Suthichai Yoon in the 1970's just as students were getting restive, has enjoyed the advantages and disadvantages of being the new kid on the block: strident but less influential, fewer apparent vested interests but less advertising revenue. If The Nation can be characterized as skinny and undernourished at times, reflecting budget restraint and a lack of advertising support, the Post, in contrast, suffers from journalistic gout, ample ad revenue coupled with an unspoken fear of biting the hand that feeds it.

Thaksin's CEO-style approach to politics showed some early promise in reviving business fortunes battered by the 1997 economic collapse, so things went swimmingly at first. Being a pro-business paper with a middle-of-the-road editorial policy and the self-imposed decorum of being Thailand's leading English-language window to the world, the Post was the bearer of good news. Whether by habit or design, the Post rarely gives its readership the low-down on the shocking, gruesome and tragically endemic violence that is the daily fare of Thai language tabloids. While this is arguably a reflection of discretion and good taste, it also keeps the less savory aspects of Thai society out of sight and out of mind to the "benefit" of diplomacy, tourism and business. The gray lady approach of eschewing stories on rape, domestic violence, suicide and traffic accidents is a legitimate editorial stance. But what about bodies washed up on the shore and bullet-ridden corpses with political implications?

The Price of Acquiescence

The current upsurge of unrest in the Muslim-dominated provinces of the Thai south, for example, which has since the January 4, 2004 raid on an army base included some 20 school burnings, a hotel bombing, dozens of machete attacks, sniper shootings, torture, abductions and disappearances, and the April 28th separatist attacks that resulted in 108 attackers being gunned down by police does not make for pleasant reading. But it makes an especially shocking leap from the pages of the Post, which had previously downlayed reports of the early stirrings of Mujahadeen-linked violence in that region for reasons of politics, commerce and style.

Prime Minister Thaksin set the tone for coverage (or lack thereof) by repeatedly dismissing the bad news from the south as mere "banditry" and "conflicts of interest among drug dealers." Even after the Bali bombing of 2002, when the Thai language press began to report more aggressively on terror activities in south Thailand, Thaksin openly castigated journalists in Hong Kong and Bangkok who dared to suggest that Thailand might have a home-grown terror problem of its own. And this March, the prime minister cavalierly dismissed the unsolved disappearance and suspected murder of Somchai Neelaphaijit, a renowned lawyer who had been defending five Thai Muslim suspects brutally tortured by the police, as "a domestic spat."

Following the prime minister's lead down the primrose path has again and again proved to be bad journalism. While it would be an exaggeration to say the Post had embraced Thaksin, it nonetheless effectively avoided his wrath at a time when less august watchdogs within the Thai press were being systematically silenced. …

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