It was a test of strength for Thailand’s Constitution Court, formed under the country’s progressive 1997 constitution. One of the country’s most powerful politicians, Sanan Kachornprasart, was on trial, accused of falsely declaring his assets. Independent Television (iTV), the country’s first and only truly independent free-to-air channel, broadcast the live proceedings in full. On August 10, 2000, Sanan was found guilty and barred from holding public office for five years.

Now the Constitution Court faces a bigger challenge as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, head of ruling party Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), answers allegations that he failed to fully disclose his assets while deputy premier in 1997. The case could go either way. What’s been proved already, however, is that iTV has changed. It suspended its broadcast of the proceedings after just one week.

It was perhaps a predictable development, following the February 7 sacking of 23 iTV journalists who had alleged editorial interference by their newest shareholder, Shin Corporation, the telecommunications company founded by billionaire Thaksin. But the apparent collapse of iTV’s independence raises further questions about the often unclear influence of politicians and businesspeople on the media in Thailand today. “If you look back to when the army controlled the country, [the issue of who controlled the press] was black and white. Now there are a lot of blurry lines,” said Jira Honsamroeng, the channel’s former managing editor.

Some say those lines began being blurred with the onset of the 1997 economic crisis. President of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and managing editor of The Nation newspaper, Kavi Chongkittavorn, says that over the past three years there’s been a shift away from ownership of newspapers by journalists towards ownership by businesspeople and politicians. “The new money has led to changes in some editorial positions. It’s more pluralistic, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. You need to ask, who’s behind this? There is a new pattern of owners with vested interests. The Thai press used to get mad. They don’t get as mad anymore.”

iTV stood out for its ability to “get mad” on issues. The channel was born in the aftermath of the country’s May 1992 anti- government protests, when the five government-controlled channels failed to accurately report on violence that saw scores of Thais killed; its hard-hitting investigative reports, in which social issues were given unprecedented prominence, were something never before seen on Thai TV. So when the company founded by the man most likely to be the next prime minister took an interest in the channel in early 2000, staff got edgy. When Shin Corporation took a 39 per cent stake in the company, they started protesting.

On 12 June, iTV news director Thepchai Yong was removed from his position for his part in the protest. Next to go – ‘voluntarily’ – was managing editor Jira Hongsamroeng, six days after the January 6 election of Thaksin. “There was so much pressure to do this, to not do that,” said Jira of the lead up to the election, adding that he had been told by management he “had to learn to compromise”. Then on February 7, seven dissident journalists were sacked and 16 were layed off, after alleging editorial interference in political reporting. A majority of them had also tried to form a labour union.

UK Leeds University academic and Thai media expert Dr Duncan McCargo says that iTV now suffers from exactly the same problem it was designed to avoid: the image of a television channel controlled by a powerful interest group. “The ITV sackings are definitely a step backward for Thailand, which is now reverting to the 1992 position when television could not be relied on for objective information. They do illustrate a longstanding problem with Thailand’s media: that people buy and own media as a fairly crude means of exerting political power and influence.”

Still, along with the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, Thailand has one of the freest presses in southeast Asia. The 1997 constitution comprehensively protects media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information; press monitor Freedom House upgraded Thailand’s press from “partly free” to “free” in its 1998-99 report.

Thailand’s journalists have also taken the lead when it comes to promoting freedom in the region. In Singapore last October, the TJA staged a walkout at an assembly held by the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, an organisation that had linked journalists in the region for 25 years. “They don’t want to fight for anything,” said TJA president Kavi. “Our walking out was a big shock to them; they told me I was behaving like a westerner.” Kavi says that Thai journalists will instead work to strengthen the South East Asian Press Alliance, formed in 1998 by Thai, Indonesian and Filipino journalists.

As developments at iTV indicate, such an organisation has plenty of work to do. “Definitely Thailand has more freedom than in other parts of the world where journalists are physically threatened,” said sacked iTV anchor and reporter Karuna Buakumsri. “But here there are psychological threats. Sometimes there is self-censorship – these days there is a lot.”

The pressures to self-censor are even greater outside Bangkok. Amnat Khunyosying, journalist and publisher of Phak Nua Raiwan (Northern Daily) in the northern city of Chiang Mai, says he paid the price for refusing to self-censor his reports on local corruption. On April 18 last year, he narrowly escaped death when shot by four soldiers, who are now in jail awaiting trial. “A group of influential men in Chiang Mai are pressuring me to accept Bt500,000 and drop the case,” Amnat said through an interpreter. He says the jailed men have threatened to name the person who ordered the shooting if they remain in jail for longer than a year.

Amnat has covered corruption all his life, and has been sued – unsuccessfully – by disgruntled subjects before. “Many have threatened me, but nothing ever happened before this,” he said. Despite feeling the pinch following both the economic crisis and the shooting – the paper is now published three times a week instead of daily, and has been cut from 16 to 12 pages – Amnat is determined to continue publishing his paper. “I want to publish a real newspaper. Other newspapers don’t dare to review corruption.”

As Amnat says, the law in Thailand is good. “It’s the people who use the law – the public prosecutors, the police, the lawyers – who are not good. There are black influences hanging over Thailand.”

The sacked iTV journalists will soon be testing that law themselves. Article 41 of the constitution guarantees the rights of journalists in media organizations to be independent of influences from their owners, so long as the journalists behave ethically. The journalists will petition the Labour Court, from where their case is likely to be referred to the Constitution Court. There are also plans to lodge a complaint at the ILO. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be broadcast on iTV.

/ Current Affairs