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BKK POST: Thai press still needs

May 4, 1998
May 4, 1998
Thai press still

              Thailand can afford to bask for a moment in praise for its
              inexorable and apparently unstoppable progress on press
              freedom. Indeed, 1997 was a landmark year in the long and
              difficult challenge of establishing a trustworthy press that is truly
              free. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in its annual survey of
              the world, said the new constitution contains the most sweeping
              free-press provisions in Asia. Our new supreme law is also the
              probable reason why Freedom House of America credited
              Thailand with new gains towards press freedom. 

              Compared with much of the world, we have a lot to be thankful
              for in all our political freedoms. That includes freedom of the
              press, where Thailand ranks among the top quarter of all
              countries. To mark World Press Freedom Day yesterday,
              several respected organisations surveyed the world. Thailand's
              press surpassed most of the world in rankings of both legal and
              actual freedom. 

              The Press Freedom Day praise is welcome, particularly since it
              recognises the huge national effort that went into writing and
              passing our new constitution. The framers of the charter deserve
              special commendation for their attention to press freedom. No
              country with a shackled or government-controlled media can be
              truly free. It is apocryphal to say that "Thai" means "free", but it is
              true that the citizens of our country have consistently fought for
              their freedoms. 

              Not all of the rest of the world is so fortunate. The report by the
              Committee to Protect Journalists names the world's top 10
              enemies of the press. In our neighbourhood, we meet Suharto of
              Indonesia, Jiang Zemin of China and Than Shwe, the nominal
              dictator of Burma. The CPJ calls Burma a nightmare for freedom
              of expression, says China controls all media, and notes that the
              Indonesian military arrests, harasses and threatens journalists -
              and if that doesn't work, it drives them into exile. 

              The Freedom House report notes how many nations which
              repress the press - Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma - continue to
              suffer the fallout from the 1997 economic crash. Like many, we
              are sceptical that press freedom and a thriving economy are
              directly linked. But we do think Thailand's decision to provide
              honest, transparent and timely economic information and its
              decision to establish a free press spring from the same well. 

              Newspaper censorship has ended in Thailand, and authorities
              can no longer close publications on a whim. Legal disputes
              including criminal charges against newspapers and other media
              will be fought in the court, not in the offices of a bureaucrat or
              police chief. Much remains to be done, however, before we can
              take a bow as the world's most free press. The new Press
              Council is still forming, but it should provide an effective
              ombudsman to prevent media excesses. 

              Then there is the extremely serious matter of violence and
              intimidation of newsmen. Last Jan 10, someone shot Matichon
              reporter Sayomchai Vijitwittayapong to death in his native
              Phichit province. Mr Sayomchai told colleagues he had turned
              down a bribe of 150,000 baht to stop writing about corruption in
              the province's building trade. That could have been the fatal
              trigger, so to speak. 

              If our authorities have largely stopped intimidating or threatening
              reporters and editors, local mafia and godfathers have not. This
              is not simply a problem for the Thai press, of course. Old-style
              gangster politics still prevail in many places. They are the chief
              reason for political corruption. We can take some solace that the
              godfathers and mafia leaders are slowly losing their influence, but
              much remains to be done to make members of the media feel
              safe about honest reporting. 


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Last Modified: Mon, May 4, 1998