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Thai media 'study trip' a gov't bribe?

Publication Date : 26-09-2012


If you were a journalist and were "somehow" invited on a week-long "study-trip" sponsored by the Thai Parliament and funded by taxpayers' money - to England, France and Belgium - and which includes dining at a posh restaurant in Bloomsbury in London, a visit to the dreaming spires of Oxford, staying at the posh four-star Park Plaza Westminster Hotel overlooking Big Ben, dining on a cruise on the Seine, visiting the Louvre and more, even though you are not even a Parliament beat reporter, would you take it?

More than 20 journalists said "yes" and took the trip, which is still unfolding as this article appears in print. Since last week there has been a barrage of questions on whether the trip, led by no less than House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont, was appropriate and justifiable.

Many odds are against Somsak and the journalists taking part in this junket, however. Four out of 25 journalists invited were from Voice TV, the pro-government and pro-red television station owned by the ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's son, Panthongtae. And two more guests, although not full-time employees of Voice TV, are regular co-hosts of the same morning news talk show programme called 'Wake-up Thailand'. One of the pair is the editor of alternative online newspaper.

What's more, none from the so-called opposition media such as Thai Post, Naew Na or ASTV Manager Daily newspapers or yellow-shirt ASTV were invited except a journalist from Nation Television, a sister organisation of this newspaper.

Young journo @noppatjak turned down the invite, however, stating via Twitter that he felt "uncomfortable" after seeing the "recreational" itinerary that includes watching a Premier League football match. The organiser insisted that this football opportunity was funded by a private company and was not taxpayers' money. But again, is it inappropriate - as it's scheduled while these people are in England on taxpayer's money to supposedly engage in a "study trip"?

The organiser has never been able to convincingly explain why no parliamentary reporter was invited. The budget of 7 million baht (US$226,000), or 180,000 ($5,800) baht per journalist invited (the total trip covers 37 people), is a substantial sum and could definitely be better and more wisely spent on things like intensive study-trips for fewer select journalists judged to be outstanding or at least competent Parliament-beat reporters.

The sum could also be channelled easily into giving one or two grants for Parliament-beat reporters to either further their study in a related discipline or fund a competitive and merit-based fellowship.

What we end up with instead is an abusive use of taxpayers' money for a lavish junket that selectively picks mostly government-friendly journalists.

If this is not a soft bribe, or a reward for being friendly to the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, or an attempt to incur a debt of gratitude among the invited media, then I don't know what is. And all this is made possible through taxpayers' money, not the House Speaker's own personal purse.

Both government agencies and media organisations need clear rules that are readily accessible to the public over what kind of trip is appropriate and justifiable and what constitutes good and effective use of taxpayers' money. Let this trip, which is probably just a tip of the iceberg in terms of abuse of taxpayer-funded junkets, be a turning point.


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