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 homegrown 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. The absence of alternative views on television was especially deafening, as Thaksin used his position as prime minister to assume the levers of control at state-controlled radio and TV, while as Thailand’s number one tycoon he bought ITV, a formerly independent station that had been set up specifically to offer an alternative to state-dominated broadcast media. The print press, being less amenable to centralized control, came increasingly under attack, not so much in the form of draconian censorship but rather through quirky, idiosyncratic attacks voiced by Prime Minister Thaksin himself.
The owner of the small but respected Naew Na, a Thai language daily, was approached by Thaksin during a friendly game of golf and asked to sack his star columnist and commentator, Prasong Soonsiri. The owner balked and went public with the story, and Prasong continues to write withering criticisms of Thaksin, largely couched in fable and metaphor. But another writer on the same paper was pressured to leave. Respected academic Thirayuth Boonmee was roundly criticized for daring to criticize and told to “go back to the library where you belong.” The Nation Group, which lost its contract to produce news for ITV, was further yanked around and humiliated with advertising boycotts, spurious assets investigations, and an increasingly unfriendly regulatory environment that nearly decimated its television channel.
Foreign journalists were not immune to Thaksin’s fury. Four Far Eastern Economic Review [FEER] journalists were named in a lése majesté case for allegedly impugning the dignity of Thailand’s highly respected monarch, while a close reading of the news snippet on the contrary suggests that it was Thaksin himself who had annoyed the king with his intrusive business dealings. Two FEER correspondents who reside in Thailand were subject to xenophobic pressures and only narrowly escaped jail or deportation. The Economist’s annual report on Thailand was banned, and International Herald Tribune contributor Philip Bowring was roundly booed by Thaksin for suggesting the prime minister’s much-vaunted “Thaksinomics” economic program was not what it seemed.
The Bangkok Post Controversy
The first sign of trouble for the Bangkok Post came in the form of a news story it reported but never effectively followed up on. The Central Group, a department store and hotel chain, which is the largest single shareholder in the Bangkok Post, was threatened by potentially backbreaking legal action from the Thaksin administration over disputed land rights in Bangkok and Pattaya. Although a quid pro quo has never been proven, the Central Group not only resolved its dispute with the government but also has become an outspoken government supporter and partner in government-sponsored economic schemes such as the Bangkok Fashion City Extravaganza.
Then in late February, Veera Pratheepchaikul, the editor of the Bangkok Post, was unceremoniously sacked. The Post, like the rest of the Thai media, had been suffering from the oppressive atmosphere of Thaksin’s nanny state: “Why didn’t you give more positive coverage to government accomplishments?” “Stop writing about bird flu!” “What will foreigners think?” “Don’t you care about the fate of the nation?” Additionally the Post was hit with specific in-house complaints about certain editorials, critical articles, and even letters to the editor. Sacked editor Veera related to me that the outside meddling that led to his dismissal was gradual but inexorable, making his last months on the job physically exhausting as the tempo of complaints increased.
The tipping point that put the Post at odds with the government and the editorial side of the paper against pro-Thaksin voices in management, seems to have come from a “perfect storm” of three unrelated news stories that cast Prime Minister Thaksin in a negative light: King Bhumibol’s December 5th birthday speech, in which Thaksin was chided for his arrogance; the sudden upswing of terror attacks in the south, and the government cover-up of the chicken flu outbreak.
“I know the prime minister doesn’t like being criticized,” said King Bhumibol in his annual public address. “Read the papers, let them criticize, listen to them.” A Post sub-editor headlined the December 5th story containing the above quote to read “King warns P.M. on Arrogance.” The judiciousness of using “arrogance” became a subsequent source of contention and tension between Post staffers and supporters of the prime minister.
Political Meddling in Newsroom Decisions
What might seem trivial on a word-byword, day-by-day basis adds up to something altogether more threatening in the cumulative. “In 30 years, there has been no political meddling as shocking as this,” Veera explained to me on his last day in the editor’s office. “What is happening now is worse than under the military regimes because now Thailand is democratic, and this isn’t supposed to happen.”
Veera told me that Central Group’s board representative, Suthikiati Chirathivat, who had the habit of showing up for a “pop-in” visit at the Bangkok Post about once a week, had been unhappy with a number of editorial decisions and had given him three months to “get in line.” Then on February 20, 2004, Suthikiati dropped a bombshell, saying that Veera was out of a job.
Post Publishing Plc’s Board of Directors denies economic or political interference, saying Veera was moved for the purpose of “business expansion.” But accounts leaked to The Nation and other outlets suggest that Central Group politics and ad revenue were decisive factors in the abrupt editorial change. A generous advertising deal from the Central Group and other department stores participating in the Bangkok Fashion City Extravaganza only served to exacerbate rather than heal the rift between the editorial and advertising sides of the Post.
Veera has been quick to point out he was no hero in this free press saga. He willingly walked the tightrope, trying to maintain credibility while juggling mounting political and commercial pressures. In his last few months on the job, he angered fellow staffers for uncharacteristically spiking a number of articles and even a column by Post veteran Kanjana Spindler, Thailand’s answer to Maureen Dowd, who poked fun, in a delightfully caustic manner, at the hubris and delusion of a government-sponsored fashion parade that coursed down one of the dirtiest streets in Bangkok. Around the time Kanjana’s column was due to run, a full-page color ad sponsored in part by the Central Group ran in the Post expressing “Honorable thanks to H.E. [His Excellency] Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Government” for the “great success” of “The 1st Fashion Phenomenon.”
The crux of the matter at the Post was that the right hand was taking serious money from the pro-government fashionistas, while the left hand insisted on the freedom to criticize the same. And it is to the credit of replacement editor, Kowit Sanandang, that Kanjana’s controversial column belatedly got the airing it so thoroughly deserved.
Wither Thailand’s Watchdogs?
Fortunately for readers, Thai print media watchdogs have not lost their bark or their bite, although some have been replaced by lapdogs, others muzzled or chased away. In the past year, nearly a dozen ace reporters or editors have lost their jobs under conditions fairly described as media interference, including the case of Siam Rath Weekly editor, Rungruang Preechakul, who saw copy rewritten, entire issues confiscated, and was pressed to quit for his critical coverage of the government during the bird flu story.
The Thai Post, (not to be confused with Post Today, a Thai language paper launched by the Bangkok Post last year) is currently being sued by Shin Corp. along with courageous NGO media reformer Supinya Klangnarong for alleging that the prime minister’s family company had benefited under his political leadership. The Thai Post, which is vulnerable, rallied to Veera’s defense, showing its support for the Post with a political cartoon, an especially effective form of political criticism that is in full blossom now. Naew Na ran a frontpage article about “dark influences” at the Post and a hard-hitting editorial applauding Veera’s distinguished two and a half decades-long journalism career dating back to his fights with dictatorial regimes. “Thaksin is killing the media watchdog,” lamented the Naew Na editorial, “closing the eyes and ears of the people.”
The Bangkok Post, masthead motto “The Newspaper You Can Trust,” is the last in a long line of Thai papers hit with political editorial interference and, in keeping with its establishment pretensions, it has been rather reticent about its own demise. Pichai Chuensuksawadi told a concerned audience at the Foreign Correspondents’’ Club that he could understand if some readers were upset and might not elect to buy the Post anymore, but he counseled patience, saying the Post would remain true to its mission. Rather than shed light on the political battles going on within the Post, he urged the audience instead to look for “proof in the pudding.”
Thepchai Yong, a Nation Group editor, who himself was pressured out of the editor’s chair at Khomchatluk for running a story on alleged cheating by the prime minister’s son, has written persistently and perceptively on government media meddling. Thus it was very much in character for The Nation to come to the Post’s defense in its struggle for editorial control, though there is both high-mindedness and practical self-interest in doing so, as the forces rattling the Post could one day destroy The Nation. Suriya Jungrungreangkit, a close associate of Thaksin and minister of industry in the current government, has in recent months bought up as much as 30 percent of The Nation group’s shares. Fortunately for Nation readers, the 800-pound gorilla in the boardroom has not yet caused The Nation to lose its bold voice.
In the spring, Central Department Store had promotional giveaways of the Bangkok Post and Post Today, even on days when articles critical of the government were run. This is a happy reminder that the success of a newspaper requires a healthy distance from the powers that be. And a certain amount of passive-aggressive compensation for the cave-in to higher powers is evident in recent issues of the Post, which has used the word “regime” to describe the Thaksin administration and has redoubled its efforts to uncover dirt on the badly bungled southern unrest. And fans of Veera’s subtly subversive news analysis no doubt welcome the continuation of his weekly column.
But when it comes to offering the public an explanation for axed articles and buried stories, not to mention the removal of a respected editor, the Post has maintained an almost Orwellian silence, as if nothing had happened. Or as I was told by an embattled Post staffer on the day Veera lost his job as editor, “If you want to really know what’s happening at the Bangkok Post, you better read The Nation.”
Philip J. Cunningham, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, writes for the South China Morning Post and other publications with a focus on politics and culture in Asia. He wrote a version of this story about Veera Pratheepchaikul’s case, “Press Under Fire in Thailand,” which was published in the February 26, 2004 Asian Wall Street Journal.