Thailand: “The Corrupt Media Mogul v. The Crusading Journalist”
Posted by Colin Brayton on December 23, 2007
Flagship publication of the Manager Group, founded by Sondhi Limthongkul. Thai National News Bureau Public Relations Department, 02 December 2005: “Assailants have thrown excrement into the compound of the Manager Newspaper headquarters, contaminating the area with foul odor and unsightly scenes.”
Though Limthongkul was not affiliated with the coup, he had been personally affected by the government when his television show was cancelled due to his criticism of the prime minister. –The Daily Bruin (UCLA)
On February 4 of last year, Thaksin said he would resign if His Majesty whispered in his ear. That evening, Sondhi thundered from his rally stage, “Where is the army? This talk is enough to bring [Thaksin] to the execution post.” –The Nation (Bangkok)
In such a “me or them” national atmosphere, there are two extremely opposite scenarios to ponder. One is of a valiant media up against a corrupt, powerful leader who manages to twist, distort and manipulate in order to make himself look like a victim. The other involves a malicious, powerful and self-pitying media that manages to twist, distort and manipulate in a bid to overthrow a democratically elected leader while making itself look like a victim. –The Nation (Thailand), May 3, 2006.
Normally he is seen on television, his voice of opposition amplified to a crowd and the words “We will fight for the king” written in Thai on his royal yellow shirt – a symbol of his political convictions. Sondhi Limthongkul has been found leading peaceful protests against the former Thai government, in February leading an estimated 100,000 people at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok, with anti-prime minister posters reading “Get out Thaksin” in the background.
And yet Sondhi Limthongkul seems to be a “journalist” only if you understand the profession of journalism in the same spirit with which São Paulo recently inaugurated its monument to “Roberto Marinho, journalist,” an homage to the founder of the Organizações Globo.
Roberto Marinho was one of the most determined, systematic enemies of journalism and democracy, as members of the “reality-based community” generally understand those terms, with debate over the details but general consensus on the principle of the thing, of the entire 20th century.
Besides being a “journalist” whose television show was allegedly the victim of pre-coup censorship, Sondhi Limthongkul is also the owner of the Phujatkarn Daily and “several other media outlets,” as well as the (bankrupt?) Bloomberg-like Manager Group of business publications.
(He bought Los Angeles-based Buzz magazine in 1991. Did it practice “buzz journalism,” I wonder?)
Travel writer Carl Parkes of San Francisco points to what he says is a good summary of the man’s dealings and holdings over the years. And for some updated study notes:
- Thailand: What Ever Happened To the “Seditious” PAD Thai Seven?
- IHT ThaiDay: “Stop the Presses, The Presses Have Stopped”
- Thailand: The Rise and Fall of Sondhi and the Emergence of the Journalist-Camelô
The victory of the party founded by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in this week’s elections in Thailand highlights the peculiar situation obtaining in Thai politics, with respect to the theory and pratice of the political functions of the Fourth Estate.
The vote was preceded by hasty passage of emergency powers legislation by the puppet legislature that may give the generalissimos a legal basis for ignoring the results and throwing anybody they want to into the legal limbo of arbitrary arrest. One is reading.
Is Shinawatra, for example, really a “corrupt media tycoon,” as the (Murdoch-owned) Times of London called him (prior to the opening, much less the conclusion, of any corruption proceedings against the former prime minister)?
Is he really a human rights abuser and authoritarian, as Human Rights Watch charged when he bought a British professional football club earlier this year?
Likewise, is Limthongkul really a crusading journalist and anticorruption stalwart, who suffered censorship at the hands of the “authoritarian” Shinawatra regime and somehow, according to different accounts, both (1) screamed bloody murder for the generalissimos to rise from their barracks and purify the nation, and (2) had nothing whatever to do with the coup, and finds it regrettable — and yet perhaps salutary, if you look at it a certain way. Making lemonade when life hands you lemons, that sort of nonsense.
As David Sasaki of Global Voices Online might say, “fear and misinformation abound” on these questions, apparently.
Which is why I have been meaning to make an ongoing study topic out of the question.
As a citizen of a city whose mayor is an even bigger media mogul than either of the two media moguls involved here, such questions interest me.
Bloomberg has never been given much to leveraging the fact that he owns a gazillion-jigawatt megaphone for political advantage, though.
Just the opposite, really. As far as I know. And I do try to pay discontinuous full attention.
Thaksin is often described (in Google results, for what those are worth) as “Murdoch-” and “Berlusconi-like.”
Gratuitious argumentum ad Nazium (creative synergies with Buddhist visions of Hell): Anti-Thaksin rally, March 2006
He is accused of many things, according to his Wikipedia anti-autohagiography:
His government was frequently challenged with allegations of corruption, dictatorship, demagogy, treason, conflicts of interest, acting undiplomatically, tax evasion, the use of legal loopholes and hostility towards a free press. He was accused of lèse-majesté, selling domestic assets to international investors, and religious desecration. Independent bodies, including Amnesty International, have also expressed concern at Thaksin’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch described Thaksin as “a human rights abuser of the worst kind”, alleging that he participated in media suppression and presided over extrajudicial killings. A series of attacks in 2005 and 2006 by Sondhi Limthongkul and his People’s Alliance for Democracy destroyed Thaksin’s name and reputation. He was also subject to several “purported” assassination attempts.
Purported, in quotation marks? Who says they are merely “purported,” and who does not?
The same article reports
On 3 March 2001, a semtex/white phosphorus bomb exploded on a Thai Airways International 737 jet minutes before new Prime Minister Thaksin was scheduled to board. The explosion caused a firestorm which consumed nearly the entire airplane on the ground, killing one airline staffer. At the time of the blast, Thaksin was walking with about 150 other passengers toward the plane at the start of a trip to attend a narcotics conference in Chiang Mai.
The sale of assets controlled by his family to international investors actually seems to have loomed largest in the reasons (pretexts) given for removing him.
The use of the passive voice — “his government was frequent challenged with” — obscures the answer to the question, “Who charged him?”
The Lula government in Brazil has frequently “been charged” with being the most corrupt government in the history of the gigante pela própria natureza. The Los Angeles Times called da Silva “The Teflon President” — an apparent allusion to John “The Teflon Don” Gotti.
Who is, of course, merely a controversial legitimate businessman.
One of the most prominent voices making such charges — Harvard Law professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger –is now a (second-tier) cabinet minister in “the most corrupt government in the history of Brazil.”
Mangabeira Unger apologists claim that he had simply made the natural mistake of believing what he read in Brazilian newspapers and magazines. Seriously. That was the excuse they gave. Quack.
In a sense, too, the Lula government “presides” over death-squad activity in Brazil.
Death squad activity occurs, and is illegal.
And as in the U.S., it is the responsibility of the federal executive to see to the faithful execution of the laws.
Summarily executing people and throwing them into the “microwave” or Guanabara Bay is not something the Brazilian constitution looks all that kindly upon. But it happens.
No one has credibly charged the current Brazilian government with sponsoring, benefiting from, or condoning such activity, however — unlike Alberto Fujimori, say — and it seems to be taking some credible steps toward addressing the problem.
It might be legitimately criticized for not doing more to implement its stated policies and international treaty commitments in this regard — death-squads and militias have been announced as a major policy initiative for the year to come. But you cannot credibly accuse it of being soft on, or pro-, death squads.
So is Thaksin more of a Fujimori or more of a Squid in this respect?
(Thaksin seems to refer to himself officially as “Police Lt. Col. Thaksin Shinawatra.” What is his relationship with his former colleagues?)
I mean, here is how I see it:
- Human Rights Watch attributes death squad activity to the Thai military.
- The Thai military overthrows Thaksin
- But Human Rights Watch has declared that Thaksin is responsible for death-squad activity in his country
Does this make sense to you, on the face of it?
Was it some anti-death squad faction of the military that overthrew the Fujimorist-Thaksin?
How are the generalissimos doing on curbing death-squad activity?
(They have reportedly just caused laws to be passed that make arbitrary arrests and suspension of habeas corpus all nice and legal.)
What does Human Rights Watch have to say on that issue?
Did it, Mangabeira Unger-like just make the mistake of believing what it read in the newspaper, or did it actually due the diligence on these accusations?
The Daily Bruin continues covering its favorite-son alumnus (remembers me a bit of the fawning coverage of Felipe Calderón in the Harvard Crimson, calling the 2006 election before the results were in):
And though a military coup has replaced the prime minster’s government in Thailand, and these public rallies have now come to a rest, Limthongkul, a Thai journalist and UCLA alumnus, came to campus Monday to speak about the implications that led to the bloodless takeover in September and about the future political state of the country.
The journalist — and newspaper and broadcast media and business-information executive and owner — seem to have gone on quite an extensive U.S. speaking tour around that time, making sure that everyone referred to him consistently as a “journalist” rather than as a “media mogul,” in order to reinforce the “crusading journalist v. corrupt mogul” storyline.
In mid-September, after years as the prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military. Though his first term had been lauded by the Thai community as well as journalistic outlets, his second term abounded with speculation of corruption within the government.
Was any of this “speculation” ever substantiated?
Examples of this corruption included policies and legislation the prime minister would pass for personal profit, as well as limitations on the types of information news organizations would be able to report. Limthongkul said Shinawatra disrespected the role of the Thai king in the democratic, constitutional monarchy.
Limthongkul had nothing to do with the coup, but had been victimized by the tyrant’s assault on freedom of the press.
Though Limthongkul was not affiliated with the coup, he had been personally affected by the government when his television show was cancelled due to his criticism of the prime minister.
That is not exactly consistent with what The Nation (Thailand) reports about Limthongkul’s crusade to overthrow the government.
The Nation quotes Limthongkul as screaming for the army to rise up from its barracks to purify the nation, standing Thaksin up in front of a firing squad and executing him.
Sondhi Limthongkul had begun his crusade several months before — wrapping himself in yellow, splashing “we will fight for the King” across his chest, and claiming to light a “dhamma candle” to spotlight Thaksin’s evil. Sondhi created the idea that politics had become a contest between the prime minister and His Majesty the King. But his movement was stumbling. The rallies were dwindling and Sondhi’s allegations of corruption were embarrassingly thin. The Shin Corp sale gave him a second chance.
Sources for these points of information? Don’t make me laugh. This is Wikipedia. Sourcing is sooo Web 1.0. Sourcing? We don’t need no steenking sourcing!
Just take it on faith that this is an “authoritative reference work,” as Jimmy “Child’s Christmas In” Wales is so fond of insisting.
But yes, these incidents seem, at least, to have been widely reported by multiple sources.
The corruption charges were “thin” in what way?
What charges did Sondhi make?
What evidence did he have?
Did he run any “dossier” stories in the newspapers and other media outlets he controls, for example?
(The Finnish conspiracy story, for example: Bogus or nonbogus?)
His moral crusade to force the resignation of the “corrupt media mogul” (The Times of London’s Homeric epithet for the man) Prime Minister:
On February 4 of last year, Thaksin said he would resign if His Majesty whispered in his ear. That evening, Sondhi thundered from his rally stage, “Where is the army? This talk is enough to bring [Thaksin] to the execution post.” That night he took a petition to Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda. As he told the world the following day, the Bureau of the Royal Household was surprisingly open at 9pm as if ready to receive him. Sondhi also went to meet General Sonthi, and related later, “I asked [Sonthi], ‘Are you going to stand by the people?’ He nodded, ‘I will stand by the people because I am a soldier of the King’.”
Which is true?
That Sondhi “was not affiliated” with the coup, or that he screamed for the army to stand the democratically elected prime minister of his country up against the wall and shoot his sorry ass?
I will try to look into that.
Vote of no-confidence:
Then in the snap poll of April 2006, called in an attempt to beat back Sonthi Limthongkul’s campaign, Thaksin won 61% of the popular vote. This translated to possibly 460 seats, because the major opposition parties boycotted the election. However, this election was annulled soon after due to irregularities.
Annulled by whom?
The man sounds an awful lot like a Thai Marcel Granier (RCTV), really. For whom RSF vouched with reams of gabbling nonsense.
So it does seem like there may actually be one or more Murdochs, Berluscronys, Graniers, Azcárraga Milmos, Marinhos or Civitas in this picture — if those analogies apply, mutatis mutandis, to the subtle art of the Thai media ratfink (with lemon grass and basil).
The whole mess really does kind of sound, potentially, like another one of those cases in which politics have become a form of ratfuck business competition by other means — the world-famous NMM “armed media monopoly” hypothesis.
Well, as I said: Add to list of study topics, provisionally filed under the heading of “the gazillion-jigawatt megaphone, gabbling ratfinks screamed persistently into”.
Some immediate items of interest: What of freedom of the press under the generalissimos? Did they bring relief from the tyranny in this respect?
About the only Thai paper I occasionally follow is the Bankgok Post.
What are some sane, disinterested sources of news and analysis on these issues?