Sondhi’s Political Woes Kill his Joint Venture with the International Herald Tribune
Thaksin in the Dock
The last time Thai publisher Sondhi Limthongkul was forced to close one of his prestige English-language publications, the Asia Times, was after the Asian Financial Crisis erupted in 1997, bankrupting companies all across the region.
This time, Sondhi’s troubles are all his own.
The Asia Sentinel has learned that Sondhi will stop publishing ThaiDay, a 15-month old joint venture with the International Herald Tribune, on 1 September due to mounting financial problems in the Sondhi empire. No announcement has yet come from Thaiday Dot Com Co. Ltd. or the IHT, but ThaiDay staff are expected to be informed Thursday. ThaiDay is an eight-page English-language version of Sondhi’s Phujadkarn business newspaper, with additional original stories, distributed in the IHT.
In an exclusive phone interview, Sondhi said the decision to close the paper stems from his concerns that the Paris-based IHT, which is owned by The New York Times, would face trouble if Sondhi is charged for treason in the future because of his year-long campaign to drag former ally Thaksin Shinawatra from political power. Sondhi spearheaded the rallies that dislodged Thaksin as Prime Minister earlier this year. Thaksin now functions as caretaker prime minister in preparation for a new general election in October.
Since he started his anti-Thaksin campaign, Sondhi has been hit by a slew of libel suits by the prime minister.
"This is my war," he said. "I don't want to drag anybody into it. The New York Times would be in a difficult position."
Sondhi said that he was the one who suggested the supplement be closed, and that discussions with the IHT were "amicable."
"They were very courteous," he said. "I think the people in Paris understand, but they're owned by the people at the New York Times."
The closure comes as no surprise to employees of the newspaper, who have dealt with delayed paychecks for the past two months. About one-third of the staff had already left the paper, and many others are looking for new jobs.
Sondhi said he will lay off the entire ThaiDay staff. But he said that he wants to continue an English-language website that covers Thai news, and will allow some staff members to re-sign with the company.
ThaiDay began publishing on 1 June 2005 as the third English-language daily in a market that includes the Bangkok Post and The Nation. Sondhi initially envisioned a paper that would cover all of Southeast Asia, but the paper suffered from weak management and a lack of funds.
"It's a bit sad, because we started off about a year ago, and things were starting to look up," Sondhi said. "But what can I say, things are not normal."
Sondhi's feud with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra burst open in October 2005 when a state-owned television station kicked Sondhi’s program off the air, ostensibly because the publisher made improper references to highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Sondhi decried the move as a blow to free speech, and subsequently launched a street campaign to oust Thaksin.
The sharp-tongued media entrepreneur quickly found himself in hot water, as Thaksin and his associates fired off libel lawsuits. Sondhi said today that 42 lawsuits are pending against him.
"I've yet to see my lawyer bills," he said. "Economically I would be okay, but I don't know what charges they will slap against me and my company, as they have been filing charges on a daily basis."
Sondhi claims that Thaksin's government has pressured local banks to stop lending money to him. He also says he cannot transfer money between two of his business arms: Manager Media Group, which publishes his Thai-language daily, and ThaiDay Dot Com, which runs both ThaiDay and his satellite television operations.
About 100 employees of the satellite television arm were laid off in July. His English language regional website, Asia Times Online, continues to publish but some employees of the site are also looking for new jobs in the face of delayed salaries.
The collapse of ThaiDay recalls the failure of Asia Times, a much larger regional English-language newspaper that Sondhi started in the boom years of the 1990s. The paper fell apart after the 1997 financial crisis, leaving many furious employees unpaid despite Sondhi's assurances.
Sondhi rebuffed claims that comparisons can be made between the two papers. "Asia Times stopped simply because of the economic crisis," Sondhi said.
Ironically, many in Bangkok expected ThaiDay to be a pro-Thaksin newspaper when it first started last year due to Sondhi's past friendship with the prime minister. Despite Sondhi's campaign, the newspaper had begun to carve out a niche in its 15 months.
"That's a sad piece of news, because I liked that paper," said a Bangkok-based staff writer for an international daily newspaper. "I had no expectations, but I found myself relying on it more than the Bangkok Post."
Despite ThaiDay's closure, Sondhi has no intentions to give up fighting against Thaksin. He said his business prospects will improve once the current government is ousted from power.
"Life goes on – but now it's going on on my own," Sondhi said. "I'm just trying to survive Thaksin."