BANGKOK – Once upon a time, Thailand was known to have a free and open press. Not anymore. In the 2005 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, released last month by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and ranking 167 countries, Thailand shows up at a far from flattering 107th place, behind post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and post-Suharto Indonesia.

As far as the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is concerned, the issue is clear-cut. “More than anything, or anybody else, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should take the blame for this dismaying portrayal of Thailand as a country where the press is suddenly under a dark cloud,” says SEAPA executive director Roby Alampay. Whenever billionaire tycoon

Thaksin, his government, or his family’s and friends’ companies don’t like what the Thai press has to say about them, they tend to sue. Big time.

In early 2005, Thaksin solemnly promised Thai voters that he would support press freedom. Now, at least in Bangkok, there’s a perception that his concept of press freedom takes a cue from the former prime minister and resident neo-Confucius of Singapore, the eminent Lee Kwan Yew, who in the mid-1990s successfully sued the International Herald Tribune and Dow Jones, publisher of the late Far Eastern Economic Review. There’s a difference though. Lee Kwan Yew sued foreigners who allegedly slandered him. Thaksin and his government go after compatriots.

‘Distorting the facts’

The running talk of the town in Bangkok is the legal battle pitting Thaksin against Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of Manager Media Group, one of the most influential media groups in Thailand. Asia Times Online is an affiliated publication.

On September 30, Thaksin filed a lawsuit, in both criminal and civil courts, against Sondhi, his co-host Sarocha Pornudomsak and Thaiday Dot Com, a sister company of Manager Media Group and producer of the no-nonsense Thailand This Week political talk show, seeking 500 million baht (US$12 million) for defamation. The reason: alleged comments made on the talk show on September 9 by both Sondhi and Sarocha questioning the prime minister’s allegiance to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The talk show – which used to air on Thailand’s Channel 9, a property of the state-controlled Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT) – was abruptly banned on September 15, only a few days after the contentious edition. MCOT’s reason: “one-sided” and “unfair” attacks on the prime minister and insinuations regarding his relationship with the King.

On October 11, Thaksin again filed a lawsuit in both criminal and civil courts against Manager Media Group, publisher of the Manager Daily newspaper, and two of its executives, seeking an additional 500 million baht for defamation. The reason: severe criticism of the government in a public sermon by respected, senior Buddhist monk Luangta Maha Bua published in the newspaper on September 27.

According to Thaksin’s chief lawyer, Thana Benjathikul, claiming a total of $24 million in damages makes sense because of Thaksin’s “very high social status as the prime minister.” He says that according to Thai law, the maximum amount, established a long time ago, used to be a paltry 5 million baht (less than US$125,000). So the $24 million is a case of adjusting to inflation. “This is the amount we are requesting, but it’s up to the court to establish how much the defendant will have to pay.” As he sees it, the lawsuit against Sondhi, Sarocha and Thaiday Dot Com is to counter “malicious” attacks against Thaksin, and the lawsuit against Manager Media Group to counter attacks against Thaksin’s government. The civil lawsuit against Sondhi is to protect the prime minister’s reputation.

Thana denies this legal overdrive has anything to do with gagging the press. “Newspapers here can criticize everything. You may have an opinion, but you cannot attack anybody with no proof.” He adds that “if the media distorts facts in their reports, the prime minister is entitled to use his rights as a citizen to sue.”

The assertion that the Thai media “distorts facts” warrants investigation. As Thana puts it, Thaksin’s legal action is essentially against a newspaper headline chosen by Manager Daily when it published the sermon of Luangta Maha Bua. Thaksin’s lawsuit accuses Manager Media Group and executives Saowalak Thiranujanyong and Khunthong Lorserivanich of some sort of conspiracy to defame the prime minister. The headline is cited as the key evidence.

Thana also sounds like an executive editor when he says that the newspaper should have edited what the prime minister considers “slanderous” comments. So according to Thaksin and his lawyer, the newspaper defamed him because it printed the sermon in its entirety (“other newspapers published only selected passages”), with no editing, but with a dubious headline (“they mixed their own opinion with the sermon”). Thana says he will prove in court that the headline was false.

Thaksin’s lawyer also confirms that Luangta Maha Bua will not be sued alongside Sondhi, essentially because in Thai Buddhist culture it is “inappropriate” to sue a revered holy man with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of followers nationwide: “He’s very well known. Mr Thaksin also used to like him.”

According to Sombat Wongkamhaeng, secretary general of the Law Society of Thailand, anyone in Thailand has the right to pick and choose anyone else to be sued. Thana for his part could not have been more explicit. “If he were not a monk, we could have taken legal action against him.”

But legal action against him is exactly what Luangta Maha Bua wants.

Sue me, I can take it

Even revered senior monks in Buddhist Thailand are not immune to lawsuits. Luangta Maha Bua, 92, is the head of Wat Pha Ban Tad, a temple in the northeastern Thai province of Udon Thani. He is perceived, even in worldly Bangkok, as controversial, outspoken and prone to swearing. Many elderly, traditionalist Thais don’t appreciate his activism, insisting that politics is not for monks.

Luangta Maha Bua does not shy away from performing an important political role. During the severe 1997 Thai financial crisis, he successfully mobilized Thais in the kingdom and abroad to alleviate the economic hardship by donating gold and US dollars to the Bank of Thailand. He also helped Thaksin to fight for his political life when the prime minister, then in his first term in office, had to prove that he did not try to conceal his billions from public scrutiny.

The lawsuit contends that publishing “harsh” and “untrue” statements is not an “act of good faith.” Thana insists that “even if the sermon was real, a newspaper must be careful not to print falsehood that can cause damage to another person.” He has defended the lawsuit on the ground that “it’s an exercise of an individual’s right to protect his reputation and privacy. The newspaper [Manager Daily] did not criticize the prime minister fairly as a public official, but rather took him to task personally, using harsh words, which was damaging to him.”

The fact that Luangta Maha Bua – who actually pronounced the “falsehood” and the “harsh words” – is not being sued does not mean that the government has let him off the hook. On October 13, while Thaksin was on state business in Europe, Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Krea-ngam – allegedly a legal expert – went on the offensive, saying that Luangta Maha Bua had defamed the prime minister. “The sermon contained many strong words and was driven by hatred. We’ve also secured a hard copy of the sermon that was published on the Internet.” Wisanu added, “By the way, there are still many good monks out there.”

Luangta Maha Bua may not make the “good monk” list because he has publicly challenged Thaksin to name him as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. “Why didn’t the premier sue me if my sermon had caused damage?” he asks. After confirming that Manager Daily published his exact words, the senior monk emphasized that he is “ready to go to jail … The truth is that I’ve heard complaints from many Thais from all over the country that this government is very politically ambitious. This will hurt all the country’s important institutions in the long run.”

As this green curry opera developed, the “multimillion baht question” – in the words of the local English-language daily, The Nation – of why Thaksin chose not to sue the monk who attacked him in the first place, kept coming back.

Finally, on October 16, the prime minister himself volunteered the reason: “He had been kind to me, so I’m going to be kind to him.” Civil rights lawyer and constitutional expert Thongbai Thongpao says, “The prime minister has the right to sue anyone he wants. No one can force the prime minister to sue anybody. This does not depend on Luangta Maha Bua’s wishes.”

But the press is not convinced. In an editorial, The Nation argued that “the decision to avoid suing Luangta Maha Bua may, ironically, end up doing more damage to the prime minister’s reputation than the monk’s original comments allegedly did.”

Thai journalists comment that Luangta Maha Bua’s hundreds of thousands of followers may be inclined to consider Thaksin’s legal moves as “unwise” – something that in an exceedingly polite society such as Thailand, unlike in the West, bears a catastrophic connotation.

Especially after the senior monk said that “the intention [of his sermon] was like a little scolding [from a teacher; he still considers Thaksin one of his disciples]. It was purely a teaching for the benefit of peace and order for our nation, religion and monarchy.” Luangta Maha Bua emphasized that in his sermon he used the figure of Devadatta, the Buddha’s enemy, “as a metaphor.” One is entitled to conclude that Sondhi, Sarocha and are being sued because of a metaphor.

Patriarchal matters

The lawsuit against Sondhi, Sarocha and also charges that during the September 9 TV show the hosts implied that Thaksin interfered with the appointment of a group of senior monks tasked to select a caretaker Buddhist Supreme Patriarch. In Thailand, this highly sensitive matter is a prerogative of the King.

The current Supreme Patriarch, Somdet Phra Yanasangvara, 92, had not performed any ceremonies in public for months because of health problems. So “the government appointed a panel of senior monks to select an acting Patriarch”, recalls Paisal Sricharatchanya, publisher and editor-in-chief of ThaiDay, an English-language daily distributed in Thailand along with the International Herald Tribune. A top Thai journalist, he has spent many years with the Bangkok Post and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Paisal says that while the Supreme Patriarch was “still alive, functioning and his health improving”, the government appointed an acting Patriarch allegedly on the grounds that the ailing elder monk might be exploited by unscrupulous souls.

According to the criminal lawsuit, Sondhi and Sarocha “falsely accused the plaintiff beyond the boundary of media freedom” as far as the Supreme Patriarch controversy was concerned. That’s not how Sarocha tells it. “Sondhi’s brother is a doctor, part of the medical panel which was reviewing the Supreme Patriarch’s health. So Sondhi was stating a fact. He had access to the schedule proving that the Supreme Patriarch was fulfilling his duties.”

Thana sees the issue differently: “There are not two Supreme Patriarchs in Thailand. It is against the law. One of them is only temporary. And it was a committee that appointed him, not the prime minister.” He says both he and Thaksin watched the program at the time, and the video will be produced in court as evidence for the prosecution.

As far as the controversy around Luangta Maha Bua is concerned, Sondhi’s lawyer, Suwat Apaipakdi, quoting what is common knowledge in Thai media circles, says that “every newspaper reproduced his comments. Why did Thaksin not sue him? He chose to sue only the Manager Media Group because it’s linked to Khun [Mr] Sondhi. This is part of a personal conflict between them.” As a lawyer, Suwat is adamant. “The two lawsuits have no merit.” Thongbai, the constitutional expert, disagrees. He thinks they do have merit, “and do not constitute an attack on freedom of the press.” Thana for his part says both accusations are “very easy” to prove.

How to sue a parable

Manager Online, says Paisal, is the most popular website and forum in Thailand. One of its readers emailed a parable called “Lost Sheep” which was then read by Sondhi on his talk show, with no comments, as Sarocha recalls it. The identity of the reader has not been revealed.

Suwat, Sondhi’s lawyer, is keen to point out that “the story does not refer to the prime minister. Under Thai criminal law, if you tell a story, you are not guilty.” He adds that “if Mr Thaksin thinks he is the Big Brother in the family portrayed in the story, he obviously has to think that the story is about him.” Thongbai disagrees. He says that as the story was made public and read on the air, the prosecution will invoke article 328 in the criminal court to prove that the story was critical of the prime minister as a public figure.

Thai journalists, at least at the English-language dailies, The Nation, Bangkok Post and ThaiDay, overwhelmingly agree that the fact that Thaksin also chose not to sue state-owned MCOT, the owner of Channel 9, adds to the perception of a politically-motivated lawsuit. Suwat notes, “They did not sue Channel 9 because it is a government company.”

Suwat shows the list of witnesses to be called by the prosecution in Thaksin’s lawsuit. Number 1 is the prime minister himself. Numbers 6 and 7 are two MCOT executives sued by Sondhi, and number 10 is the general director of MCOT. “That’s the whole story of this case,” says the affable lawyer. “Thaksin ordered MCOT to close down the TV program. And when Khun Sondhi sued three MCOT executives, Thaksin sued back. The cases are directly linked.”

The chronology is clear. The talk show was cancelled by MCOT on September 15. On September 26, Sondhi sued three MCOT executives for canceling the program, demanding a symbolic 1 baht (2 1/2 US cents) in damages. Four days later, Thaksin slapped Sondhi, co-host Sarocha and Thaiday Dot Com with the $12 million lawsuit. Suwat says that “Khun Sondhi wanted to show what is wrong and what is right. He doesn’t want any money.” Thongbai, for his part, says he does not understand why Sondhi sued for only 1 baht in damages. At the same time, “I cannot say whether the prime minister is trying to bankrupt anyone. Let justice decide.”

Thana does not like the 1 baht lawsuit one bit. “The court is not a joke. Mr Sondhi just wanted to get people’s attention.” He points out that MCOT and Thaiday Dot Com had signed a written contract stipulating that no heavy criticism was allowed on the program. So MCOT identified Sondhi’s comments as a breach of contract and cancelled the show. “It’s very difficult to control a live program,” he adds.

Under the 1997 Thai constitution which, much more than its predecessors, sternly protects freedom of speech, this is the first time that a Thai prime minister has sued the media for defamation. Suwat takes it further: “This is the first time that a prime minister has sued a newspaperman in the history of democracy in Thailand.”

Paisal, echoing what is standard conversation fare among Bangkok’s smart set, comments that “most people in Bangkok now criticize Thaksin. His urban base among the middle classes is eroding. They perceive the government as corrupt, and the prime minister as a member of a greedy family, too dictatorial, hot tempered and arrogant.” But Paisal, who has fought a few lawsuits himself, is careful to add that “the countryside does not care about lawsuits. What they care about is money.”

SEAPA for its part warns about “a practice of self-censorship among the [Thai] media amid the use of state emergency power”, as well as the fact that Thaksin’s government “is behind the commercial bid to take over independent newspapers.” This is a direct reference to hostile takeover bids by Thai entertainment giant GMM Grammy Group against the media groups that publish the Thai-language daily Matichon and the English-language daily Bangkok Post. GMM Grammy Group chairman Paiboon Damrongchaitham is extremely close to Thaksin, and has made it clear on the record that GMM would interfere with the management of both newspapers.

The sue-till-they-drop syndrome

It’s not only Sondhi and the Manager Media Group. The Thai press is fighting nothing less than a lawsuit tsunami.

The English-language daily, Bangkok Post, is fighting a 1 billion baht defamation lawsuit by the Airports Authority of Thailand over a controversial report about cracks in a runway at the new, still-under-construction, way-behind-schedule Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The Thai-language daily, Matichon, is being sued by a group of executives of Picnic Corporation, a cooking gas company now under investigation for alleged stock-related fraud. The lawsuit demands 10 billion baht in damages. Another lawsuit – demanding 5 billion baht, targets the business weekly Prachachat Turakij, owned by Matichon, which also reported on the Picnic case. Picnic was set up by a former deputy commerce minister, Suriya Larpwisuthisin, who had to resign from the government last July when members of his family, who were in control of Picnic, were charged with fraud.

The Thai Post is being sued by Shin Corp – founded by Thaksin and now controlled by his family – for insinuating that the company received preferential government treatment. The lawsuit demands 200 million baht in damages. Journalist and freedom of speech campaigner Supinya Klangnarong, for her part, is fighting her own libel suit – 400 million baht – also filed by Shin Corp. Supinya is the author of an interview published by the Thai Post in which some tough questions are asked regarding the connection between Shin Corp’s soaring profits and Thaksin’s years in government.

Recently, in her one and only court appearance before the final verdict in December, clasping a purple, semi-precious stone as a lucky charm, Supinya denounced “a climate of fear” prevailing in Thai society. In this sense, she is echoing Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch, for whom “there is now a real sense of fear.” Supinya feels that “deep down … the lawsuit was filed in order to stop criticism of the Thaksin Shinawatra administration.” It is well known in Thailand, Supinya says, that “majority shareholders of Shin Corp are members of the prime minister’s family, his son and daughters, and Thaksin often says he needs to ask for money from his wife.”

Most crucially, Supinya stresses that her information on Shin Corp’s fabulous profits, which tripled between 2001 and 2002 after Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party came to power, was obtained from Shin Corp’s own press releases.

A petition calling for Shin Corp to drop the criminal charges has been signed by a number of leading international intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Armand Mattelart. It’s unlikely to produce any effect on the company.

Fight for the right to talk

Senior Thai newspaper editors and publishers recently got together in an emergency meeting called by Thailand’s Press Council to analyze what the Bangkok Post described as “an unprecedented threat against their constitutional right to free expression.” By this time Sondhi had already decided to take his talk show on the road and turn it into an expanded exercise in participative democracy.

Co-host Sarocha, who is network program director for the Thailand Outlook Channel, confirms that since September 23 they are broadcasting live every Friday from an auditorium at Thammasat University in Bangkok, with an audience of up to 4,000. “On October 14, Thailand’s “day of democracy”, the audience was over 10,000.” They recently took the show to a packed central Bangkok park, claiming the auditorium was too small.

As the co-host, she says she is getting “a lot more feedback” after the controversy. She gets thousands of SMS comments and there’s a weekly poll as well. Viewers can order a VCD of each show for only 55 baht, as well as yellow T-shirts with the slogan “We will fight for the King” printed in Thai. The only political talk show in Thailand is now broadcast on News One, a 24-hour, Thai-language satellite news channel. When it was on terrestrial Channel 9, the ratings used to be around 3 percentage points, unusually high for a program about politics.

Suwat is “absolutely sure” it’s impossible for a Thai court order to silence Sondhi, as many in the Thai press fear. He says the court date for examining Sondhi’s 1 baht lawsuit against the three MCOT executives is December 19. November 28 is the first hearing for the Thaksin lawsuit against the Manager Media Group, and December 26 the first hearing for the lawsuit against Sondhi, Sarocha and Thaiday Dot Com. Suwat will call a large number of witnesses, including academics and royalty. The Civil Court will rule on compensation only in March 2006. If they are found guilty, Sondhi and Manager Media Group have only 10 days to pay the full 1 billion baht in damages.

If the prime minister, his family’s and friends’ companies and government politicians win all the ongoing lawsuits, they stand to collect up to US$486 million. For some, Thaksin’s pledge to eradicate poverty is on track.