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Public Outcry Halts Purchase of Independent Thai Newspaper Group


Thai citizens and journalists are calling for more vigilance over media freedom after heated public reaction forced a company close to the prime minister to end its bid to take over a popular newspaper. Fears remain that Thailand's lively print media is under pressure.

When a company run by a tycoon close to Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried to buy two popular news outlets, Bangkok's middle class and its intellectuals were not happy.

Ultimately, the public outcry and a threat of a boycott forced the company to give up the bid. But some politicians and journalists say they remain concerned that media freedom is under attack, directly and indirectly, by the government.

GMM Grammy, led by Paiboon Damrongchaitham, offered $68 million to take control of the Matichon newspaper and magazine group, and Post Publishing, the company behind the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper.

Thailand director for the media advocacy group Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Kulachada Chaipipa says public reaction was swift.

"I guess within hours of the report that Grammy already took up some of the Matichon shares it became known to the public, the flood of messages into certain Web sites voicing anger, voicing opposition," she said.

Senator Kraisak Choonhavan says the takeover bid led to heightened concerns over media freedom in the country.

"It is quite a hostile takeover and it's pretty well known that affiliates to the prime minister, business people, are about to buy out the last remaining big newspapers who are independent," he said.

Surveys indicated that many Thais believed the bid was politically motivated because of the close relationship between Grammy's chairman, Mr. Paiboon, and the prime minister.

GMM Grammy is best known in Thailand for distributing music, promoting performers, and investing in radio, television, and magazines.

Mr. Paiboon has said the bid for the newspapers was purely for investment and he would not have interfered with editorial policy. But many were unconvinced.

Chris Baker, an author and commentator in Thai business, said the strong reaction reflected Matichon's journalistic style and role in recent Thai history.

"Matichon is rather special. It is a newspaper started by activists in the 1970s with the intention of being a quality newspaper, and that's the difference," he said. "This group set out to have a really different type of journalism, more intelligent, more cultural, much more broad-minded than anything that has existed before in Thailand."

Media watchers and opposition politicians say Matichon and other publications are under political pressure. There are allegations that government supporters threaten to pull advertising out of publications that are critical of the government.

Government critics say other tactics have been used also. For instance, Shin Corporation, the communications and satellite company Mr. Thaksin's family controls, took a majority stake in a local television station, Independent TV. The government or the military control most radio and TV networks, and some critical broadcasters have been pushed off the air.

And some journalists say the government is taking to the courts to silence debate.

Supinya Klangnarong is fighting criminal charges and a $10 million civil suit, together with Post Publishing, over an article alleging that government policies had benefited the prime minister's allies.

Ms. Kulachada says the atmosphere for journalists, never easy in Thailand, is now more difficult.

"From the beginning of this administration, threats against the media had developed. But it was not just one thing, one threat, it is a combination of strategies, if not totally silence the media, it is forced to the media to self censorship," she said. "This trend has become quite obvious."

The tactics have left their mark. In 2005 the U.S. media watchdog group Freedom House ranked Thailand 95th out of 194 countries in an assessment of media freedoms. In 2000, before Mr. Thaksin took office, Thailand's standing was 29th.

But Senator Kraisak is hopeful, he says the Grammy takeover bid has raised the alarm, and people will be on guard against more corporate raids on the media.

"It has heightened people's awareness completely that what is most precious to them in Thailand is the free press, the free media," he said. "I was quite surprised by all the intellectuals, artists, middle class, quite aware of this and very disturbed by it."

But media watchers say the country's lively newspapers and magazines remain vulnerable, because public outcry may not stop future takeover bids by companies that would want to limit public debate and media freedoms.

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