Normalizing authoritarianism by opposing press freedom

7 09 2009

In our original post, PPT had the headline: Opposing press freedom or normalizing authoritarianism? We now have the answer. Read our update below.

Often in reports in the press it is the detail that tells the real story. The Bangkok Post has two stories that seem on the face of it, supportive of a free press. Look a little closer and the real story is both different and sinister.

The Post’s first story (7 September 2009: “Govt vows not to interfere in MCOT inquiry”) seems to suggest that the Democrat Party-led government is taking a hands-off approach to the MCOT interview with Thaksin Shinawatra. The MCOT is a company that remains majority owned by the government. The Thaksin interview was splashed across the front pages of Matichon and Thai Rath newspapers.

The story asserts that the “government will not interfere in the MCOT’s investigation into Chom Phetoradab’s interview with fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on FM 100.5, PM’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey said on Monday.” Sounds good, but here we are in the territory occupied by Sathit, who is on record as opposing press freedom. For just one of PPT’s examples, go here.

Sathit says the matter is internal to MCOT. But, as the Post reports, the interview has “upset Mr Sathit, who is in charge of the state media.” More significantly, Sathit “said although the MCOT had the right to invite outsiders to host programmes on its stations, the government should have the means to prevent such things as the Thaksin interview from happening again.” PPT has added the emphasis here.

What’s the big deal for Sathit? Sathit says an “interview with Thaksin could have a bad impact on the country because he usually speaks negatively about the Privy Council and about the justice system…”.

Then regular Bangkok Post columist Veera Prateepchaikul (7 September 2009: “Thaksin’s interview and press freedom”), recognizing that Sathit “is fuming and appears to want blood,” urges a temperate response, warning that he “should tread warily. Any hasty over reaction might only put him deeper in hot water.” Veera even appears to support media freedom when he says that “Thaksin’s interview was nothing new and cannot be seen as a threat to national security or to the government.” Further, there “is nothing wrong with the airing of an interview with Thaksin, even by a state-run broadcaster…”.

Veera tells his readers that the “main issue of the interview was Thaksin’s offer to hold peace talks with the Democrats and all his other opponents. He said he was ready to talk with all parties at any time to settle their conflicts… [and that] Thaksin rejected the allegation that he smuggled a huge amount of cash and valuables out of the country in 30 boxes and said the money from his sale of Manchester City football club was funding his new investment in diamond mining. He also denied he owns a private jet plane.”

Then Veera adds, “Sathit and the Democrats may not like the notion that Thaksin was given free airtime by state-run media, they simply cannot order that someone be held accountabel by the MCOT and be sacked – at least, not without facing a backlash from media organisations and groups advocating freedom of expression.” As PPT has been pointing out, there’s not much chance of that in today’s political situation.

But Veera has advice for the government minister: “In order to prevent a repeat of such an embarrassing incident, what Mr Sathit can do is ensure the MCOT reviews its policy of allowing non-staffers to moderate political programmes.”

After Sathit’s intervention, the journalist involved in interviewing Thaksin – Chom Phetoradab – has said he will resign. Thanks to Bangkok Pundit for these links (and more on this story).

This is just another form of censorship and is in line with the current trend of embedding authoritarianism. That a journalist advocates it in this manner suggests just how “normal” covert and “legal” forms of repression have become.

Update: PPT would have liked to have been wrong on this story, but a whole bunch of those pressing for increased repression have confirmed our view that authoritarianism is being normalized in Thailand. The Nation’s story reinforces the trends in the Post story set out above.

The Nation has this headline: “MCOT told not to broadcast Thaksin’s remarks” (8 September 2009). Multiple offender against press freedom, Minister Sathit of the Democrat Party “has told MCOT, the state-run media company under his supervision, not to allow fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s comments on air again, saying they were a threat to peace.” He went further, saying that the Thaksin interview had a “direct impact” on the “country and could worsen the current political situation as the ex-leader made negative comments against Thailand, the Privy Council and the justice system.”

A group of senators, all of them hard line People’s Alliance for Democracy activists, have added to the calls for censorship, criticising the “state-funded TV Thai for broadcasting a special report about Thaksin’s diamond mining business in Africa.” Most of the senators calling for repression are those who have never been elected. For example, “appointed Senator Sukanya Sudbantad, former dean of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts, said the station was supposed to present unbiased content but an evaluation committee had found a lack of neutrality in TV Thai.” Another appointed senator – appointed by the military junta’s government – Prasan Marukapitak “expressed concern the report about Thaksin could cause public confusion.”

Then appointed senator Somchai Sawangkan decided to go for broke, saying that “the report indicated the station had become a tool for Thaksin’s propaganda campaign.” This is so ludicrous as to hardly warrant a comment when the station is run by Thaksin opponents like Kirkkiat Pipatseritham and Thepchai Yong.

Bangkok Senator Rosana Tositrakul, who was once considered a representative of civil society organizations, said she “saw no benefit in allowing an exchange of arguments and accusations on air.”

Heaven forbid! Debate on the air waves. That would be a travesty.

We apologize for our cynical comments here, but it is difficult not to be totally amazed by the brazen anti-democratic statements of these parliamentarians. Recall that we cited Veera above as saying that there “was nothing new” in what Thaksin said and that his interview was not to be “seen as a threat to national security or to the government.”


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8 09 2009
New: Freedom vs. repression « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Yet another journalist questions the benefit of freedom for the media (see PPT’s earlier post). These journalists were the first to justifiably complain when Thaksin Shinawatra was prime […]

11 09 2009
New: Jom Petpradab’s statement on media freedom « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] earlier post on this case is here, where we comment on the Democrat Party and its minister Sathit Wongnongtoey and their […]

2 10 2009
Updated: Normal operating procedures « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Normal operating procedures PPT has posted previously about the normalization of repression in Thailand. This process continues unabated with little […]