Prasong Lertratanawisute, managing editor of Thai business newspaper Prachachat Turakij, is the country's foremost investigative journalist. His reporting has uncovered everything from charity scams by Thai monks to politicians' shady deals. His paper broke the news in 1999 of Thai Deputy Prime Minister Sanan Kachornprasart's false reporting of assets, a story that forced him to take early retirement.
Last September, the publication blew the whistle on Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for failing to declare more than $50 million worth of shares that he had transferred to his domestic servants. If found guilty, Thaksin will be forced to resign and barred from politics for five years. Prasong recently spoke with BusinessWeek Asia Correspondent Frederik Balfour in Bangkok. The following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: How did you get involved in investigative journalism?
A: The nature of investigative journalism isn't divided into business or politics -- it could be a combination of both. Three of my early major stories included land corruption by a politician in the south, the daughter of a Prime Minister who tried to evade more than $2 million in taxes, and the third was politics and business in the Bangkok Bank of Commerce loan scandal.
Q: What was your first big investigative scoop?
A: About 13 years ago, I was working for the Matichon Daily [part of the Matichon Group, which owns Prachachat] on a corruption case involving monks from big temples who were issuing fake certificates to officials in the Education Ministry, saying they had donated money for social works. These certificates were used to qualify for royal decorations by the King. Eighteen officials and high-ranking monks were arrested.
Q: What happened after the Thaksin story broke? Do you feel any pressure to back off?
A: Two key members of his party came to visit us to explain that Thaksin tried with good intentions to work for the benefit of the country and asked for our sympathy. But we said: "The stories are true, here are the documents. The best solution is for him to tell the truth, and let the public decide." That's the Thai way: They just lobbied us, there were no threats.
Q: How has the Internet changed the way you do your work?
A: Before, you had to wait in a dark corner for someone to come and give you some information. Or sources gave us documents. But now we can obtain them ourselves [from government Web sites]. We did that with [Thai Deputy Prime Minister] Sanan's case, using information from different agencies. That made other journalists here and other newspapers use the same approach. I wish more journalists would do this.
Q: Do you think most reporters lack imagination?
A: I cannot judge them. They must be able to put things together, to draw a picture in their mind by putting different information together. They need to see the picture of a story.
Q: What has the public reaction to your stories been?
A: I don't know how to gauge [the public's] reaction, but I've heard from several public figures, like former Prime Minister Anan [Panyarachun] and from academics demanding more investigative reporting as a check against corruption and [unethical] government behavior.
Q: What do you think of Thailand's press freedoms?
A: Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, at the moment when 100% of broadcasting belongs to the government, which allocates frequencies by concession, then TV and radio don't have enough freedom. Generally, they're being controlled directly or indirectly by the government [through] a company with concessions. For example, a channel like iTV is controlled by Thaksin's company, Shin Corp.
Q: Have things changed under the new administration?
A: Before and during the national election, the case of iTV showed clearly that Shin Corp tried to influence the content of its coverage. But after the election, there hasn't been any crisis that would show that the government tried to influence media -- at least not yet.
Q: What about nonbroadcast media?
A: People normally think about the power of government over the media. In this sense, there's nothing to be worried about compared to many countries in region. If it had power over the media, stories like Thaksin and Sanan could not have emerged. But the scarier point is the influence of big business over media, especially broadcast. I think it will increase tremendously. Allocating broadcasting frequencies in the country must be taken away from government hands and given to [the] public. To decide on this, the government will be pressured by big business to give them power over frequencies.
Q: Is there more on the Thaksin story to come?
A: Now we have used all [the] business information [we have], we're waiting for the battle in [the] constitutional court to finish. So far, [there's] no sign [that the judges] have been influenced. But there are two other investigations in the tax department and in the stock market on whether he used his political influence to cover up wrongdoings. This has not been investigated yet, and we're watching to see if [the] two [regulatory] bodies will investigate him. You can compare it with the Watergate coverup.
Q: Are you confident in the legal system?
A: I believe in the system, but I don't believe in people who work in the system, meaning government officials.
Q: What do you think of the coverage by foreign media of Thailand?
A: I don't know what approach they use in general, but here are some observations, not a judgement. First, they collect information from the local media, then talk to sources -- they talk to sources who speak English. These people don't always...represent [accurately] those particular issues, and some are not deep enough in terms of information. If you ask me whether they exaggerate, it's the nature of media to exaggerate things.