With the honeymoon between the Thai media and the ruling junta which seized power on Sep 19, 2006 definitely over, charges of media repression and curtailment of freedom of expression are now raging among local and foreign media circles. Thai-language newspaper 'Khaosod Daily' senior editor Kiatichai Pongpanich tells the Asian Eye how things have been 'misunderstood'.
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Kiatichai Pongpanich, senior editor for the Matichon Group's Thai-language newspaper 'Khaosod Daily', shares his thoughts about the state of press freedom before and after the Sep. 19, 2006 coup d'etat that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from office. He is a member of the National Legislative Assembly tasked to draft the new Constitution, taking on the post amid protests from journalists' groups who said that this legitimised the coup and questioned what journalists were doing in the assembly.
In an open letter, about 50 journalists criticised the then newly-appointed Kiatichai and his colleagues for jeopardising the whole industry's credibility.
But Kiatichai, a member of the drafting committee, says he is keen on seeing press freedom brought back intact into the new Constitution. (The 1997 Constitution, which was called 'the People's Constitution', had what was known as the strongest provisions on press freedom ever. Critics have referred to how important these are, especially given the clampdown on community media and the monitoring of media by the military-installed government.)
But Kiatichai adds that it is not enough to just put the media provisions -- Articles 39, 40 and 41 -- there. It's also important that these laws are "strengthened and protected to prevent further interference from anyone," said Kiatichai, who is one of four media representatives in the assembly.
With the ruling junta's warnings to clamp down on 'uncooperative' broadcast media and the continued blocking of Internet sites, which critics say are clear signs of repression of press freedom, all eyes are now on Kiatichai and his colleagues to make good their promise to preserve press freedom in Thailand.
Q: Several quarters have criticised the members of the assembly drafting the new Constitution as being 'puppets' of the military junta, and journalists like yourself for agreeing to be members. What are your thoughts about this?
A: I can understand such feelings, but you have to carefully consider the situation. We were happy to get rid of the Thaksin administration but, in principle, we don't agree with the coup d'etat. Just because we accepted our posts [as members of the assembly] and tried to solve the problem from the inside doesn't mean we are supporting the coup. I told [my colleagues] that it is our duty as journalists to make sure that Articles 39, 40 and 41, which clearly stipulate the right to press freedom in the 1997 Constitution that the junta dissolved, are put back in this new Constitution we are currently drafting.
We tried to solve our problems with the Thaksin government from the outside, shouting in the streets in protest, etc, but we did not succeed. Now, we're trying a different approach, that is, to solve the problem within. Otherwise, we will just be fighting from the outside without any assurance that we will ever get press freedom back in the new Constitution. We really have to be patient. Also, it's important to clarify that we are neither part nor under the influence of the military junta or anybody. We are just doing what we think will help preserve press freedom.
Q: How were you selected to be part of the team?
When the coup leaders were in the process of forming the interim government, they asked people belonging to different fields to participate in the nomination of representatives to the legislative assembly. In the media, they contacted the top publications such as the Matichon, Thai Rath and Daily News groups. I was among those chosen. Our task was to nominate people to the National Legislative Assembly who we think will best represent and understand legislative matters.
For the legislative assembly, we had to nominate candidates who are knowledgeable in legislative matters. These candidates were chosen from different fields such as media, business, academe, etc. From the media, there were 15 representatives each for print, television and radio. In all, there were 2,000 people chosen in all. The number was whittled down to 200, and then the final 100 who will form the assembly to draft the Constitution. Among the 100, there are three print media representatives and one from radio.
Q: How would you characterise the media's relationship with the past and present governments?
A: We have a very strong print media organisation here in Thailand and will protest any signs of curtailment of press freedom. I guess this is why the government has always been very cautious about meddling in our affairs and operations.
Our group used to receive about 50 million baht (1.4 million U.S. dollars) in ad revenues per year but ever since we put out stories about former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's property deals, the ads were cut down drastically, up to only about one million baht (28,000 dollars). It was a clear form of meddling as obviously the companies were pressured not to place ads in our company anymore. But, despite this, the Matichon Group is the only print media group that can pay good bonuses to its employees every year.
Q: How would you describe the working conditions in the Thai media?
A: They have improved a lot. Journalists before had very low salaries and the quality of work was not very professional. At least in our company, we can provide quality reporting, a good delivery system and printing technology and a very dedicated marketing team.
Q: How do Thai media define press freedom under the present circumstances?
A: Thai media have a similar definition of press freedom with other media in the world. We are for total freedom of expression and assembly. When we feel there's some meddling from the administration, we always fight back.
But we also have to accept the reality that we cannot do anything much under the present situation. There is also the question of cultural differences. The English media, for example, have a different concept of press freedom. If you adopt the western definition or concept of press freedom here, then you will interpret that our concept of press freedom is not really free at all.
For example, in England they can say anything about the Queen but we don't do that here because in our culture, we don't comment negatively about our King. They have to accept that for this is our culture, our way of life. The Thai people won't say anything bad about the King because this is something that is beyond press freedom.
Q: Does the Thai media exercise self-censorship then?
We do it according to the best interest of the country. If we deem it as having a negative effect on the country, like if it's a question of security, then we don't wait for the government to tell us what to do because we'll do it ourselves. This should always be used in a constructive manner.
Q: What are your thoughts about the new media, like blogging and the so-called citizen reporting?
A: I think this is ok and we have to accept these trends. But they have to know the boundaries. This technology affords people to be really free in terms of expression. But this freedom should come with a sense of responsibility. They have to be responsible to the readers, to the law and to themselves when it comes to disseminating news.
Q: Some groups are advocating for a total ban on Internet censorship. Do you agree?
A: I don't think the government can do that. Just because you see all the bad things being posted there doesn't mean that you have to ban it completely. There are many good things in there too. There should be self-regulation instead.