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Watch this space

By Nattha Keenapan
15 February 2006 14:45
Websites dedicated to fighting corruption are proliferating. But are they all bark with no bite?

If you log onto www.corruptionwatch.net today, there is nothing there, but nearly 50,000 people logged onto the anti-graft watchdog website in the mere 20 days it was up and running in January. The site, founded by the country’s leading corruption fighters and academics, such as Khunying Jaruvan Maintaka, Veera Somkwamkid and Sangsidh Piriyarangsan, was providing a public forum for lodging complaints and exchanging information about corruption. While the government denied any involvement in the shutdown, the reasons behind its remain unclear. The host of the site, Thai Dream, simply cited “technical problems” and no further information has come to light. The site is now registered in the United States at www.thaicorruptionwatch.com for overseas users and www.corruptionwatch.net for those in Thailand. The founders are hoping that there will be no more interference in its operation. The site is expected to be operating in the near future.

Corruptionwatch.net is not the only website that people have used to seek in-depth information about the country’s graft problem and to make themselves heard. For the past few years, many websites on corruption or governmental discrepancies have become popular at a time when the public has begun to doubt the credibility of TV and radio stations.

“Many watchdog websites are emerging as mainstream media channels are controlled by the government. Public demand has made websites an alternative channel for people to express their opinions,” says Pira Chirasopone, dean of Chulalongkorn University’s communications department.

Websites have a greater degree of independence and allow people, including those living abroad, to express their opinions on message boards, he says.

Most of these websites share common features. Recent newspaper articles relating to corruption or any government irregularities as well as analyses by Thai and foreign experts are all posted on their pages. There is also usually a forum for sharing opinions openly and anonymously.

The Foundation for a Clean and Transparent Thailand (FaCT), whose website is www.fact.or.th, is chaired by Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary general of the Chaipattana Foundation, and posts articles by leading Thai academics on corruption in government agencies.

The website www.thaingo.org has articles by academics, local community organizations, and student activists as well as hundreds of reports on various social problems.

Another popular website, www.thaisolidarity.org, an on-line magazine established last year in the hopes of creating a people’s movement, has in-depth articles on the October 6, 1976 massacre as well as information on foreign institutes such as the Philippines’ Institute for Popular Democracy.

These websites are attracting visits from people who lack other avenues of information. Besides the large number of visitors to www.corruptionwatch.net, www.thaingo.org has had more than 850,000 visitors since May 2003 while www.thaisolidarity.org has had more than 12,000 hits since its launch in March last year. Media sites such as www.manager.co.th, part of the Manager Media Group owned by Sondhi Limthongkul, chairman of the editorial board of ThaiDay, had nearly 200,000 hits on February 4th, the day of the first anti-Thaksin rally.

Only a few websites, such as www.corruptionwatch.net and the People’s Network Against Corruption (PNAC)’s website www.pnac-2001.net, however, have investigators who follow up on corruption complaints posted online or sent in by mail. PNAC’s tiny office overflows with stacks of documents containing corruption claims and complaints.

“The job is never easy. All procedures must be carefully done. Information about the complainants is kept secret,” says Veera Somkwamkid, the secretary general of PNAC and one of the founders of www.corruptionwatch.net.

“Not everybody can do it. Investigating corruption requires proper training,” adds Veera, who is trained in police investigation.

Apart from its website, PNAC has nearly 500 members working at different government agencies nationwide who provide information to verify corruption allegations. Veera’s investigations include on-site visits and secret interviews in order to gather evidence. Once Veera gathers enough material, he will inform the offender and present the claim and evidence to give the person a chance to defend himself, though he has no authority to bring charges against anyone.

“I’m usually accompanied by two police officers and a VDO cameraman to record the scene. People who provide information to me also need to sign their names as witnesses,” says Veera.

Since PNAC was established in 2001 by 114 governmental and non-governmental organizations and leading graft fighters such as Dr Sem Pringpuangkaew, the office has received more than 100 corruption allegations each year. Many cases were filed by high ranking officials, including deputy ministers. However, last year the number of cases dropped to about 60, which Veera believes was due to a general feeling of hopelessness regarding corruption in the country.

“People feel discouraged about corruption because even big scandals involving ministers or prime ministers are very difficult to resolve fairly, so smaller allegations get left uninvestigated. We cannot bring lawbreakers to justice,” says Veera.

Regardless of whether the evidence compiled by these organizations is enough to prosecute, all they can do is pass on complaints and the evidence to the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), the ostensibly independent anti-graft agency which Veera has called “hopeless.”

Veera says evidence from hundreds of cases sent to the NCCC have met no response. The NCCC normally sends a letter to the head of the department where the alleged offenders work to clarify the claims. The response to the NCCC is always a denial of any charges. The case ends there without Veera receiving any more information.

“No single case has been successfully completed. Everything disappears at the NCCC and they never respond. I have to say that corrupt people fear nothing, since the risk of being exposed and punished is very low, compared with the big returns from corruption,” Veera says.

Due to the NCCC’s failure to combat corruption, anti-corruption websites such as www.corruptionwatch.net have tried to tackle the problem. These websites hope to educate the public, create awareness of the damage graft causes and ask people to report any wrongdoing.

“Websites are a part of the educational process and campaign against corruption. With so many people reading the website, corruption can be exposed by anyone anytime. It is one method of prevention,” says Thirapat Serirangsan, a founding member of www.corruptionwatch.net and dean of the political science department at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. Thirapat was once a member of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, but left before the 2001 election.

With more than 900 complaints filed to www.corruptionwatch.net during its 20-day existence, Thirapat says the private investigation of allegations need to continue. So far, those in charge of www.corruptionwatch.net have agreed to follow up on the recent bidding irregularities in the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and contracts for new ships by the Royal Thai Navy. The latter case was brought to light in complaints to the website.

“Society has become more alert to what’s going on and realizes that corruption has never declined, but is on the rise,” says Veera.

According to an ABAC poll last year, corruption remains the third biggest concern among the public after high oil prices and the violence in the South. Nearly 55 percent of the respondents believed the problem was being neglected by the government, while 47 percent didn’t think the government could solve the problem.

The future for anti-corruption websites is unclear as Thailand still has no specific laws governing the internet. The Information Ministry shuts down pornographic and other sites deemed inappropriate by asking the web host to suspend the site’s contract. And while the ministry has denied any policies governing political

websites, media experts such as Pira already foresee that this alternative media space will not be unregulated for long.

“Websites should be a clear and safe channel to express political

opinions or even examine irregularities, but now they have begun to face interference. They will be controlled by the government more and more in the future,” Pira says.

Caught on the web

Good sources for articles about corruption worldwide as well as analyses of the domestic corruption problem by the country’s leading academics and anti-graft fighters:

• www.corruptionwatch.net (will be running again in the near future)

• www.pnac-2001.net

• www.transparency-thailand.org

• www.fact.or.th

Other websites about political issues,popular movements or political history, featuring news and analysis, special reports and interviews:

• www.thaingo.org

• www.peoplepolitic.com

• www.thaisolidarity.org

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