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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Hard Times for Thai Journalists   

By John Schidlovsky
John Schidlovsky is director of the Pew Fellowships in International Journalism in Washington. He spent 14 years covering Asia as a journalist based in New Delhi, Beijing, Honolulu and Hong Kong.     

Manit Phuriwattakij starts rolling out the dough for the next day's dumplings by mid-afternoon. He and his wife work in their tiny kitchen until midnight, shaping and filling with meat or bean curd paste hundreds of their homemade "salapao."

In the morning, the 56-year-old news photographer and his wife sell the fried dumplings that have become an essential part of their livelihood since he was laid off last year by the Bangkok Post. After two meal shifts--breakfast and lunch--Manit is back in the kitchen by 2:30 p.m. making the next day's fare. The average day's proceeds of $10 barely cover costs, but help to pay the couple's rent.

"It's very difficult," Manit, a photojournalist for three decades, says outside the Bangkok headquarters of the Journalists Association of Thailand. The association operates a weekly flea market where dozens of unemployed Thai journalists sell food, used clothing, trinkets and crafts.

More than 3,000 Thai journalists and other media employees have lost their jobs since the economic crisis hit this Southeast Asian country more than a year and a half ago. Although there have been signs that Thailand's crisis may be easing, the slump has left an indelible mark on the country's media, once among Asia's healthiest. After years of unbridled expansion, Thailand's newspapers, magazines and television news operations have been forced into a sobering downsizing that may continue long after the country's economy recovers.

Interviews with dozens of Thai journalists reveal nervousness about the crisis' effect not only on the livelihoods of thousands, but also on the future of the country's independent media, which fought off years of government restrictions and had begun making significant reporting gains.

Suthichai Yoon, editor in chief of the Nation, one of Thailand's two remaining general-interest English-language papers (along with the Post), says because of staff reductions the paper no longer has the resources to sufficiently cover government corruption scandals. "None of the six or seven major corruption cases are being covered adequately," he says. In the past year the Nation Multimedia Group, the Nation's parent company where Suthichai is also group editor, laid off 500 employees, including 120 editorial and production staffers, and canceled some of its broadcast programs.

At the Post, Editor Pichai Chuensuksawadi says he has "had to think twice" about sending a reporter to Malaysia to cover the trial of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of the neighboring country. Financial troubles pushed newspaper heads to close the bureau in Hanoi; merge or reduce some sections of the paper; slash the editorial staff from 270 to 226; and cut salaries, benefits and leave time.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking," Pichai says. "I've had to lay off some people who taught me the tools of the trade."

At ITV, the country's first independent television station launched nearly three years ago, losses have amounted to about $4 million in 1998 and are growing, says Thepchai Yong, senior vice president for news. The station has stopped hiring, laid off some recent recruits, slapped 20 percent pay cuts on its executives, and frozen pay raises and bonuses.

But most editors say they are confident the Thai media will retain their independent outlook, which had improved since a popular uprising in May 1992 emboldened them. Newspapers had defied a ban by publishing photos of violence during a time of political turmoil. Investigative reporting flourished, with muckraking Thai journalists competing vigorously to expose government mismanagement and corruption.

Financial problems hit the media with the de facto devaluation of the Thai baht in July 1997--an event that set off the Asian financial crisis and sent costs skyrocketing. The price of newsprint, which accounts for half of Thai publishers' expenses, soared. Advertising revenues declined by more than 60 percent.

Chavarong Limpattamapanee, secretary general of the Reporters' Association of Thailand, says keeping major advertisers happy has become critical. "If you offend them, it may affect the survival of your paper."

A dozen small papers, mostly weeklies and monthlies, have already gone out of business. "The small papers couldn't afford the advertising losses," says Sumek Chantrasuriyarap, a media analyst who predicts a gradual recovery for the publishing industry starting this year.

Hardest hit have been those Thai newspapers that were part of companies investing in property development and other vulnerable areas of the economy. One was the Manager Group, run by the flamboyant media entrepreneur Sondhi Limthongkul. The group once controlled a far-flung empire of newspapers and magazines across Asia and in the United States. Sondhi's Asia Times newspaper, launched with great fanfare in the early '90s, was seen as an Asian-owned, English-language regional paper designed to give the Asian Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune a run for their money.

Today, much of Sondhi's former empire has been sold off or is caught up in legal disputes. Asia Times exists only as a bare-bones online operation. Meanwhile, Sondhi has returned to his newspaper roots to run the Manager Daily shirtsleeve-style with a reduced staff, emphasizing sensationalism in an apparently successful effort to boost circulation.

Some journalists who lost their jobs during the crisis have fared well. Peerapong Chengkwang, a former sports reporter at the now-defunct Thailand Times, is earning $500 a month selling electrical supplies--10 percent more than his journalist salary--and plans to open his own shop.

But most are struggling. Aroon Borirak, a former Manager Daily business section reporter, sells watches at the flea market run by the journalists' association. The 29-year-old journalist is earning about half his former salary.

Wimolwal Piboolvech, 40, a former business and consumer reporter for Naewna Daily, sells cheap costume jewelry and bric-a-brac, earning about 80 percent of her previous income. "I never expected it to be this bad," she says. She blames the previous Thai government for mismanaging the country's finances and not warning the public sufficiently about the strong possibility of an economic crisis.

Other journalists blame themselves for failing to anticipate the reversal of economic fortunes. In a soul-searching essay on the lessons of the crisis, a top editor at the Nation, Kavi Chongkittavorn, wrote: "Well-versed in reporting only economic boom and growth...[Thai journalists] were not ready for bad news. They were dead wrong and the outcome was devastating for the country and its people."

Most Thai publishers and editors don't foresee a return to the glory days. But the financial crisis may prove to be beneficial by leaving the media leaner and wiser. Chavarong, of the reporters' association, describes publishers' attitudes before the crisis as "always hire two reporters or two editors, even if you only needed one." Now, he says, "the crisis has taught the media owners to be more conservative in running their business."