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Media independence curtailed by political and commercial pressures

(SEAPA/IFEX) - 13 October 2011 - About a month prior to, and after the new Thai government led by deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck Shinawatra was sworn in on 20 August, the number of victims of polarization in the Thai media, dictated by waves of political and commercial pressures, has grown, taking the media's shrinking independence to a new low.

Examples of this include the resignation of Pinyo Rungsuriyathama, a hard-hitting political and current affairs program host from Thailand's public broadcasting service TV THAI following criticisms by the station's boss and audience that he favored Peua Thai de facto leader Thaksin in his interview, broadcast prior to the elections. Then there is the termination by Matichon Publishing Group of the employment contract of its news veteran and investigative journalist Prasong Lertrattanawisut. In another case, emails were circulated among members of the Red-Shirt movement calling on them to bully a Channel 7 TV reporter who approached the new prime minister, Yingluck, with a harsh question.

This ostracism of the media was made worse by a scandalous email communication that implicated a number of local newspapers and television stations as benefitting from Puea Thai Party's reward scheme prior to the 4 July general elections.

Nevertheless, the most tragic outcome of all is the pull-out of Matichon from the Press Council of Thailand (TPCT) to protest what it considered was the council's "biased investigation" into the scandalous emails. While the investigation did not find evidence that anyone was guilty of receiving rewards from Peua Thai, it did verify that the email account sent by Peua Thai Party's officer was real. However, the investigation did go too far, as critics put it, to suggest Matichon's pre-election coverage was more in favor of Puea Thai's prime minister candidate Yingluck over her Democrat rival, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The pull-out does represent a serious crack in the unity of Thai media, which five years ago reached its zenith when a business take-over of Thaksin's business ally, Matichon by music entertainment giant GMM Grammy Entertainment Plc, triggered an impassionate protest by the media community, who believed it was an attempt by GMM to hem in critics of Thaksin, an accusation the company denied.

Moreover, it deals a big blow to the self-regulatory approach that press advocates believe is strategically the best defense of press freedom in democratic societies. The media should be able to exercise self-criticism and come up with its own stringent measures to uphold ethical and professional standards.

In hindsight, the reinstatement of the pro-Thaksin government in the July election victory of Peua Thai Party alone can neither be blamed for this dramatic turn of events in the media industry nor are the incidents mere coincidences.

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