Friday, July 29, 2011

Media bribery claims must be urgently probed

Media bribery claims must be urgently probed
By The Nation
Published on July 8, 2011

Allegations about 'rewarded' journalists undermine key pillars of democracy

The investigation into an allegation that some journalists received money from the Pheu Thai Party in exchange for favourable coverage of the party during the general election must be pursued in earnest and to its conclusion. Simply put, this scandal threatens the foundation of Thailand's fragile democratic system.

Last week, the Manager website publicised an e-mail which the paper claimed was leaked by a Pheu Thai Party source. The e-mail suggested that a Pheu Thai deputy spokesperson paid journalists Bt20,000 to ensure that positive coverage and images of Yingluck would receive more space in the media. In the e-mail, the party's spokesman claimed he had spent money wining and dining certain members of the press last month. The reporters were also named in the e-mail.

If this allegation is true, the reporters in question must be punished. The published e-mail explicitly suggested that the reporters were bribed, a suggestion that, if true, severely violates the ethical code of journalism. The allegation does not merely affect the reporters said to have been involved in the bribery, it also taints the credibility of the reporters' news outlets. And most importantly, the incident damages the credibility and integrity of journalism as an institution.

In fact, this alleged bribe has caused more damage to these news outlets than to the reporters involved, because the general readership will remember the names of the news outlets rather than the names of individual reporters, whom the e-mail mentioned by their first name or nickname.

On the other hand, if this e-mail turns out to be a fraud, the culprits must be brought out into the light. And the result of the investigations must be widely publicised so as to clear the names of reporters whose careers have already been affected because of the rush to judgement by many groups in society. All the time it remains unclear whether the bribery actually took place, the reputation of the reporters alleged to have received the bribe is tarnished. Thus, it is imperative for all parties involved to get to the bottom of what happened and find out if bribery has taken place.

In this regard, the National Press Council of Thailand's decision to investigate the allegation within 15 days was welcome. The council, the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, the Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association last week issued a joint statement declaring that the allegation had impacted negatively on the media profession. It also set up a panel of respected members to probe the matter.

The press associations cannot let this allegation go unanswered, and neither can the news outlets that these reporters are attached to. Already, the issue has attracted strong public attention. For instance, social activist Dr Tul Sittisomwong called upon the media organisations to find the truth behind the allegation. "I don't know whether such an action [media bribery] is against any laws but it is improper," he said.

The Pheu Thai Party must also do more to reveal to the public what exactly occurred. An internal investigation should be conducted and anyone who is found to have been involved must be held accountable. The party earlier issued a short statement that did nothing to answer the questions regarding the incident. After all, it is illegal for a political party to offer bribes, and if there is truth in these allegations, a serious crime has been committed.

With the country so politically polarised, the media has found it difficult to perform its duty, especially during the election campaign. The media, both local and international, has sometimes been accused of being biased. Some media outlets have been charged with partisan coverage, of going easy on one political party while taking frequent shots at the other. In other cases, media outlets have been accused of featuring certain political parties more prominently than others.

Against this background, it is imperative for every party involved to uncover the truth and reveal it for all to see. This is a brewing scandal that affects the credibility of two main pillars of democracy - political parties and the media.

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