Corrupt journalists compromise credibility of media

A new controversy involving the news media has emerged, with allegations that journalists were bribed by a food conglomerate in exchange for favourable news coverage.

The Thailand Information Centre for Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism (TCIJ) published on its website a purported internal report by the company in question. It details various forms of public criticism the firm faced and the ways in which it was watered down - or actually quashed - through negotiations with the critics' superiors and webmasters. On occasion these contacts agreed to purge the critical comments or postings altogether. The report listed media organisations and individual journalists in the radio, television and print media who were on the firm's "monthly payroll". TCIJ director Suchada Jakpisut said she considers such practice "a kind of corruption".

The TCIJ did not name the company involved, but Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) subsequently issued a statement admitting that the report in question was its internally circulated document. It stressed, however, that the content had been taken out of context. It is normal for corporate public-relations divisions to promote the firm via advertising in the news media, CPF said. Senior vice president Punninee Nanthapanich acknowledged that the firm also sponsors activities initiated by the media, such as golfing events and seminars. But "We've never paid to 'buy the media' in order to conceal or distort information," she insisted.

The National Press Council of Thailand and the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand on Monday set up an independent panel to investigate the allegations. In a joint statement, the two media groups expressed concern that the credibility of journalism and media outlets was at stake. The Economic Reporters Association on Tuesday agreed that the controversy could have an adverse impact on news media.

Due to the media's perceived credibility and ability to shape public opinion and taste, its understandable that private firms and politicians seek to befriend them, in the hope that journalists and media executives will help them when needed. In return, politicians and businesses have news stories, influence and other benefits of their own to offer. Good relations with businesspeople have become essential when it comes to securing advertising revenue.

However, for some politicians and businesses, ordinary ties with media people are not enough. They want closer ties by which they can favourably influence the journalists. This has led to attempts to "buy" the targeted media people, most of whom are senior journalists who can make news decisions in a way that serves the interest of those who pay.

It's widely believed that some news media outlets and particular journalists are partly to blame for Thailand's precarious political situation. There were allegations of politicians "buying support" from media organisations through handsome advertising deals and from journalists through regular payments or other benefits, such as all-expenses-paid overseas trips. The investigation into this latest case should be conducted in a transparent manner to ensure honest findings. Given that National Anti-Corruption Commission member Klanarong Chantik will lead the investigative panel, it appears guaranteed there will be no attempt to cover up misdeeds. However, there should be no attempt to "save the face" of anyone involved, either, whether it is the journalists accused of having been paid regularly by a business or the media outlets involved. The public must know the full truth.

There have been calls for reform in many areas of society, including politics, commerce, social affairs and the justice system. While the focus might be on political reform, the news media should be another sector where changes are carried out for the better. The media should be subject to reform in order to bolster its stature and credibility in the eyes of the public.