Toppling Thailand’s big shots
As hard-boiled investigative journalist Prasong Lertratanawisute prepares to leave Matichon, he talks about the highlights of his career
The Nation on Sunday
Published on August 7, 2011
In just a few days time, Prasong Lertratanawisute is waving goodbye to his long and fruitful career with the Matichon Group where he has worked for almost three decades.
The well-known investigative journalist with a nose for corruption refuses to talk about his soon-to-be former office and the reasons why he was offered – and accepted – an early retirement package at just 50 years old.
“I’m still Matichon’s employee until August 15. Until then, I won’t talk about Matichon. After that, I will talk about it only as necessary,” he says.
A news junkie, Prasong has been reading Matichon since its establishment in 1978. He worked there as a journalism student and was taken on by the newspaper after he graduated from Chulalongkorn University He says Thailand’s October 1976 political uprising inspired him to become a journalist.
Prasong, who has chaired the Thai Journalists Association on two occasions, started his investigative reporting career with a story about corruption in the Education Ministry. His misunderstanding of the legal process in the case of moulding machine scandal led to a misleading headline and cost the company Bt1 million for libel. That was a big lesson for him.
“The story that made my name was the royal decoration fraud. The one who broke the story was actually Boonlert Kachayuthadej (Changyai.) He got the tip but I had many good news sources in the Education Ministry. I found documents that exposed the corruption, which allowed me to produce more content than my bosses. That’s why I became famous for it,” he says, adding that he also owes thanks to Boonlert and Matichon’s strong team.
The report brought Matichon a prestigious award from the Isra Amantakul Foundation in 1987. The award is named after a Thai prominent journalist and is often referred to as Thailand’s Pulitzer prize.
Many award-winning exposures followed, among them the graft in the Sor Por Kor 4-01 land scandal during the Chuan Leekpai government, the collapse of the Bangkok Bank of Commerce (BBC) that led to the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and the false assets declaration that forced veteran politician Sanan Kachornprasart out of politics for five years.
But Prasong is perhaps most proud of the first share concealment case of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra exposed by Prachachart Thurakij, a sister paper of Matichon, during his tenure as editor.
“The amount of money was the biggest in the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s history. Thaksin used his maids and driver as nominees and, as he was the prime minister, the revelations that came out of that piece of the investigative journalism had an enormous impact,” he says.
Although Prasong is keeping mum about what happened between him and Matichon, his departure is the talk of the town, especially amongst members of the media.
While many have expressed sympathy and regard the early retirement offer as “forcing Prasong to quit”, with Matichon becoming pro-Thaksin in its reporting, others say Prasong should not have given up.
After working as editor of Prachachart Thurakij, Prasong was promoted to editor, and then deputy managing editor of Matichon Daily newspaper. During Thailand’s political turmoil, he was assigned to look after Matichon Online, then just last month, on July 15, found himself as Matichon Publishing House’s ad-hoc editor, a position that could only be considered as a demotion.
On that day, Prasong tweeted “I’ve got a note from Matichon not to send my article for Saturday July 16. The article, ‘The questions that Yingluck has not (dared to) answer’, is therefore my last article.”
In recent weeks, Prasong has become very active on Twitter (@Prasong_lert) and his website www.prasong.com.
The online articles he’s posted since the end of June are titled “Yingluck and Thaksin’s Assets Seizure Case”, “The Culture of News-telling and News Copying”, “National Anti-Corruption Commission’s Delay in Probe into Interference in the Work of the Administration Court”, and “Sondhi Limthongkul in Waiting of the Ruling for the Stock Market Fraud Case”.
Receiving both flowers and bricks in response to his posts, Prasong usually replies with short answers.
A comment on the website posted on July 31 read, “Sam says: Would like you to also write about other stories such as the elite who take money and ASTV.”
“Everybody has his own expertise. But I will try,” Prasong, as the web administrator, replied hours later.
He later clarified that he had been attacked on several occasions for not scrutinising the Democrats as closely as Thaksin.
“It’s not possible to be so good at everything. Why would I look into and report on the same issues as other journalists? Abhisit’s military service and the scandal involving his place of birth have already been publicised so many times,” he says.
Prasong insists he is not anti Thaksin but says he wants the truth uncovered.
After leaving Matichon, Prasong will remain in Thai journalism as the director of Isra Institute. He is also a part-time member of the Law Reform Committee, an 11-member committee formed according to the Constitution.
“Wherever I am and whatever I am, I will always try my best as a journalist,” he says.
And he will always have fond memories of Matichon. “Many of us stayed with Matichon, despite the small salaries, because we had faith in the paper and the spirit of professionalism that distinguished between business and the public interest. We always believed that Thailand should have such organisations to work as its watchdogs,” he says.