Cablegate: Rtg Hachet Man Takes Axe to Media, but Wounds Himself

DE RUEHBK #1613/01 1460933
R 250933Z MAY 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

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1. (SBU) Embattled Prime Minister's Office Minister Jakrapob Penkair
suffered another blow when the Democrat Party filed a motion on May
21 to impeach him. Jakrapob, the bete noir of the media, has been
accused of abuse of power and lese majeste. This is the latest
chapter in a series of running battles between the Prime Minister's
outspoken media maestro and the media itself and has prompted
activists to accuse the new Samak administration of chipping away at
media freedom in Thailand. End Summary.

The Battle Begins

2. (U) On May 21, the minority Democrat Party filed a motion in the
Senate to impeach Jakrapob Penkair on grounds of abuse of power and
for crimes against the monarchy (see septel for more on the latter).
The Democrats charge that, as the minister responsible for
overseeing state media through the government's Public Relations
Department (PRD), Jakrapob has played political gamesmanship by
transforming the state-owned television station, Channel 11, into
the National Broadcasting of Thailand (NBT) and wielding it as a
tool to cudgel political opponents. The impeachment documents
submitted by the Democrats will be reviewed by the Senate Speaker on
Monday, May 26, and then forwarded to the National Counter
Corruption Commission for consideration.

3. (SBU) But accusations of unfair meddling with the media have
bedeviled Jakrapob from the moment he took office. He launched the
initial strike in his first public statement the day he was sworn
in, saying that he intended to "sort out" Thai media and added that
he would "manage" news reports of some media outlets to ensure
impartiality and accurate reporting by establishing government
committees to monitor state media news coverage.

4. (SBU) Even before Jakrapob took office, the media was bracing for
confrontation. TV Thai Acting Director Thepchai Yong said that he
was deeply concerned about the Samak government's actions towards
the media and believed that it was trying to scuttle TV Thai because
it was seen as anti-Thaksin (Note: Thailand Independent Television
(TITV), formerly Thaksin's Shin Corp-operated iTV, was transformed
into TPBS under the 2008 Thai Public Broadcasting Act. In April,
TPBS rebranded itself as TV Thai. End note). Thepchai told the PAO
and IO privately, "It is ironic that we have more to fear from a
democratically-elected government than the last [military] one."

5. (SBU) Many believe that television Channel 11 was rebranded and
relaunched as NBT on April 1 to counter TV Thai's perceived
anti-Thaksin bias. The government claimed that the transformation
of Channel 11 sought to produce programs with more quality and
diversity and would "focus on the concept of impartiality, fairness,
transparency, and rapidity in all situations." Many observers
believe that the move was aimed at neutralizing TV Thai and that the
new, reformatted NBT will serve purely as a mouthpiece for the
government, without any journalistic integrity.

6. (SBU) The bad blood between Jakrapob and TV Thai continues. In a
speech at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on May 8,
Jakrapob said that TV Thai was the product of a dictatorship and was
wrongly conceived and implemented. He said, "I would not do
anything to jeopardize it [TV Thai]. I will create the NBT to
compete with it. I will tell society that NBT, which is a state-run
organization under a democratic government, is able to produce TV
programs useful and relevant to the public's interest."

Right Hook to PRD and an uppercut to MCOT

7. (SBU) In addition to sparring with TV Thai, Jakrapob has landed
several jabs at other media institutions. Jakrapob's first public
controversy came earlier on, when he signed the order to transfer
PRD Chief Pramote Rathavinit, who was appointed as chief under the
Surayud government, to an "inactive" post. Though Jakrapob claimed
he made the move so Pramote could support an important, new ASEAN
initiative, the action raised eyebrows among media observers, who
believed Pramote was removed due to his connection to the former
coup-appointed government and for his anti-Thaksin tendencies.
Pramote was quick to shoot down the Samak administration's idea of
launching a new television station to counter TV Thai, stating that
it was not legally possible. A year before, Pramote played a
significant role in the banning of pro-Thaksin station PTV from
going on air in March 2007. (Note: This is not the first time
Pramote, a long-time PRD official and civil servant, has been
removed from this politically-sensitive position. Pramote was PRD
chief under former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai before being

BANGKOK 00001613 002.2 OF 003

transferred to an inactive post at the PM's Office during Thaksin's
first term. End note.)

8. (U) Just weeks later, Jakrapob suggested that the president of
Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT), Wasan
Paileeklee, be removed because the organization failed to make a
profit. These seemingly innocuous words caused a firestorm of
criticism directed at Jakrapob, who was charged with meddling in
affairs outside his purview since MCOT is a private company, not
subject to regulation by PRD. MCOT labor union president Orawan
Klimviratkul said if Mr. Wasan was to be forced out it should be the
board's decision, not the government's. Some observers asserted
Jakrapob had hoped that by removing Wasan, he could install an ally
in this position. The ensuing criticism stung Jakrapob, who backed
down, and the MCOT chief kept his job. (Note: Wasan was appointed by
the board of MCOT Plc. to a four-year term in April 2007 after
former MCOT president Mingkwan Saengsuwan, now Deputy Prime Minister
and Minister of Commerce, resigned in the aftermath of the September
2006 coup. Though MCOT is a privately-held company, more than 70%
of its shares are owned by the Ministry of Finance and several of
the board positions are held by government officials. End note.)

A Body Blow to Chirmsak

9. (SBU) On February 13, a well-known radio host and former senator,
Chirmsak Pinthong, "voluntarily" took his popular talk radio show
off the air on FM 105, a PRD-operated station. Chirmsak said he
pulled his show due to concern from executives after he criticized
PM Samak for comments he made during a CNN interview in which Samak
alleged that only one demonstrator died in the 1976 student
demonstrations. However, Chirmsak later reportedly told the media
that his production house told him to step down after receiving a
call from Jakrapob.

Community Radio Up Against the Ropes

10. (SBU) In April, Jakrapob hosted a meeting in eastern Thailand
with several dozen representatives from community radio stations.
(Note: Community radio stations thrive in rural areas like eastern
Thailand, where they are often the primary source of news for small
towns and villages. End note.) During the meeting, Jakrapob
reportedly offered to help community radio stations operating
without licenses avoid arrest, if they agreed to allot 2-3 hours of
airtime a day to government-sponsored programming. The Thai
Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA), in an April 23 statement
condemning the proposed action, accused Jakrapob of abusing his
power in order to control community radio. Supinya Klangnarong of
the Campaign for Popular Media Reform told embassy staff she feared
any such move by the government would put stations that did not
agree at increased risk of arrest by the authorities.

No Coups is Good News

11. (U) In May, Jakrapob announced that he would prohibit PRD staff
from reporting any news stories mentioning or referring to possible
coups. He said in a statement to reporters: "Staff of the state
media who encourage a coup either directly or indirectly would be
regarded as committing a disciplinary offence." Though this order
did not extend to commercially-owned newspapers and magazines, or to
community radio stations, as they do not fall under the PRD,
Jakrapob did call on reporters at private companies to use their
judgment before reporting even the possibility of a coup. Again,
the media bristled at being lectured by the Prime Minister's Office
Minister and felt that Jakrapob's words were meant to intimidate.

Comment: With Friends Like These...

12. (SBU) Jakrapob rose to prominence as a disciple of ousted Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. When the People's Power Party (PPP),
Thaksin's de facto political party, won the December election,
Jakrapob was well-placed to land a cabinet position.

13. (SBU) The winds of change have not blown well for Jakrapob,
however. The investigation into his alleged offense against the
monarchy has brought criticism from within his own party. Despite
the perception that many of Jakrapob's actions with the PRD and
against TV Thai have been to neutralize Thaksin's old enemies, his
patron Thaksin appears to have kept him at arm's length lately. The
former PM stated publicly on May 21, "If Mr. Jakrapob cannot make
this thing clear, he should retreat." For his part, the current PM

BANGKOK 00001613 003.2 OF 003

has said, with slight exaggeration, that his entire cabinet, himself
included, was under investigation for one thing or another, and he
refused to fire Jakrapob. The media, not too surprisingly, has
painted a picture of Jakrapob as being isolated and abandoned.

14. (SBU) Jakrapob's criticism of the media as being biased,
unprofessional, prone to relying on gossip and hearsay, is not too
far off the mark. Academics have recently upbraided the media for
many of the same reasons. Many Thai reporters have privately
expressed disdain for Jakrapob and it appears that much of the
squabble between this government official and the media is
personality driven. However, this mutual antipathy does not
mitigate the threat Jakrapob has made to rein in the more than 3,000
community radio stations across the country.

14. (SBU) Rejected by allies and his patron, and now twisting in the
political wind, Jakrapob finds himself in an uncertain place. It is
unclear what concrete action will come of the threats Jakrapob has
made against the media. What is clear is that the first five months
of Prime Minister Samak's administration have been a combative time
between the media and the government, with Jakrapob as the pointy
end of the government's spear. End comment.


© Scoop Media

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