By Saksith Saiyasombut

A media monitoring group set up by Thailand’s opposition Democrat Party in order to flag news coverage deemed ‘too favorable’ to the current government recalls the hawkish tendencies towards state media control during their rule between 2009-2011, further fueled by the history of the leader of this media monitoring group.

Satit Wongnongtoey, Democrat Party MP and former Minister to the Office of the Prime Minister of Thailand. (Picture by The Official Site of The Prime Minister of Thailand Photo 2009, licensed under CC)

The Nation reported on Tuesday:

The Democrat Party has set up a media-monitoring group to be led by Trang province MP Sathit Wongnongtoey. He urged the public to monitor changes closely at Channel 9 and television hosts such as Sorrayuth Suthasnachinda of Channel 3, as well as newspapers, for what he claims is biased reporting in favour of the Pheu Thai-led government.

Sorrayuth failed to explore the details of the national-reconciliation bills in his reporting, while Channel 9 had continually attacked the Constitution Court’s order to delay the House deliberation on constitutional amendment, Sathit said. If the party finds a media organisation that is not reporting well-rounded information, it will provide that organisation with information and ask it to disseminate it, he said.

Democrats to monitor ‘pro-Pheu Thai’ media coverage“, The Nation, June 5, 2012

Furthermore, another Democrat MP cites the changes at MCOT, a state-owned media organization that owns dozens of radio stations and the Modernine TV channel (formerly Channel 9). Its president was sacked over ‘poor performance’ in October last year and replaced by  Chakrapan Yomchinda, a former MP of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party. He then moved aside last May to pave the way for current president Premkamon Tinnakorn Na Ayutthaya, who reportedly has close ties to Thaksin.

The fact that this media monitoring group, established to keep an eye on any news that is not in their favor, is headed by none other than Sathit Wongnongtoey, is somehow revealing about the mindset of some, if not many, in the opposition party. During his tenure as Minister to the Office of the Prime Minister under the administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva, Sathit left a trail of knee-jerk reactions and gaffes behind him as he interfered with Thailand’s media landscape.

Since the Minister to the PM’s Office also oversees the state media outlets of MCOT and NBT, the government has some vital tools to get their message across the airwaves. Ever since the political crisis of recent years, these outlets have essentially become propaganda machines for whoever is government. Sathit went all out in 2009 to use this to “counter” everything by Thaksin and the red shirts, while already establishing a total disregard for media freedom early on.

During that year, he maintained his reactionary stance, as evident in several cases such as when he smelled a foreign conspiracy after rumors of the King’s medical condition caused the stock market to nosedive. Or when he pledged to curb Thaksin’s personal SMS exchanges. Or when he smelled another foreign conspiracy when the website Protect The King was suddenly replaced by something completely different, where in reality the government simply forgot to renew the domain. Or when he smelled yet another foreign conspiracy and demanded from The Times (UK) to hand over the recordings from an interview with Thaksin. Or when he launched a bizarre and wasteful campaign urging all Thais to publicly sing the National Anthem.

As you can see, Sathit did quite a lot during his term. However, the pinnacle of his work happened at one of the MCOT radio stations, where one of the hosts actually dared to conduct a phone interview with Thaksin. Unsurprisingly, this was met with a lot of criticism including from Sathit himself who tweeted* his initial bewilderment and demanded a clarification by the MCOT management, as usual suspecting a hidden agenda. In the end the radio host quit in frustration after Sathit’s overreaction.

So it comes as no surprise that Sathit Wongnongtoey would spearhead a media monitoring group to scan Thailand’s news outlets for headlines and talking points that do not fit their opinion. But it is exactly this behavior, manifested by a history of knee-jerk media interferences, that exposes a deep reactionary hawkish stance which only allows one single narrative and disregards the existence of others.

*Side note: Back then in September 2009, I wrote a series of tweets commenting and highlighting Sathit’s overreaction but was unable to find them, despite using a whole bunch of tools. If anyone know how one can access very old tweets from way back, please let me know. Thanks!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.