The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) holds grave concerns for the future of press freedom in Thailand following a court decision permitting the Prime Minister’s Office to demand television station, iTV, pay over 100 billion baht (around US$2.9 billion) in fines by March 6.
According to local reports, the military-installed government will terminate the license of iTV and reclaim ownership of the air wave, effective March 7, if the station doesn’t pay the fine — a sum that will unquestionably bankrupt the company.
“It is extremely unnerving to see the new government once again jeopardise press freedom in Thailand by manipulating the system so that they can directly control all six of the country’s TV stations,” IFJ president Christopher Warren said.
iTV, once renowned for its hard-hitting news stories and investigative journalism, is currently the only station in Thailand not owned by the government or military.
The station, bought out by Tamasek Holdings in January 2006, was ordered to pay the fines after a court ruled last year that it had breached its 30-year concession with the government by broadcasting less news-style programs than it was contracted for.
Under its previous owner Shin Corp, the telecommunications empire of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s family, iTV had been paying a lower annual concession fee and was allowed to increase its entertainment content at the expense of news.
Last May, however, a court retracted these benefits and ordered the station to pay back fees, fines and 15 per cent interest, totalling an unprecedented 100 billion baht.
iTV last received international attention in 2001 after 21 employees were sacked for forming a union within the company.
Despite three rulings in their favour, including a 2003 decision by the International Labour Organisation of which Shin Corp had been a member for 82 years, the 21 employees were never reinstated.
“The journalists involved were complaining that they were pressured to slant election coverage in favour of Thaksin, which only further highlights the danger of allowing the only independent station in the country to fall under complete government control,” Warren said.
This latest incident comes at a time when the IFJ has repeatedly expressed its concerns over alarming levels of censorship following the September 19 coup d’etat, with some 300 radio stations and websites censored since the military takeover.
“The IFJ is deeply concerned that this latest court decision will lead to a further retreat from a free and open press in Thailand and we urge the new government to act immediately to ensure that the Thai people’s right to freedom of expression is respected.”
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific +61 2 9333 0919
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 115 countries