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Sun, January 28, 2007 : Last updated 21:04 pm (Thai local time)

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The Nation

Home > National > Scoop journalist vindicated

Scoop journalist vindicated

He stood by his story and paid for it with his job, but runway-cracks reporter remains philosophical about events

Just two weeks after new reports of runway cracks at the multibillion-baht Suvarnabhumi Airport hit the headlines, Sermsuk Kasitipradit feels increasingly like a man vindicated.

His telephone is ringing off the hook with calls from local and international reporters and old acquaintances give him nods of approval.

Sermsuk was right all along.

This coming Wednesday, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand has asked him to address members about problems at the airport and his ordeal of being sacked by the Bangkok Post two years ago for running an expose of the runway-construction crisis.

"The management of the Bangkok Post must be thinking hard about what will happen now," the 50-year-old former chief reporter at Thailand's oldest English-language newspaper said.

Sermsuk was dismissed on August 29, 2005 after writing an August 6 front-page story telling of cracking on the new airport's western runway.

Citing unnamed sources, he reported that US aviation experts hired by then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra recommended reconstruction to repair large cracks in the runway.

That was swiftly followed by indignation from Thaksin, who lashed out, calling the report "seriously damaging to the country".

The newspaper bowed to prime-ministerial pressure and agreed to retract the allegations and apologise. Its retraction stated that while there were small cracks on the shoulders of the runway, its source wrongly claimed experts believed the runway needed reconstruction.

The Post launched an internal investigation, and Sermsuk and colleague Chadin Thepaval, the news editor at the time, were found to have acted negligently in publishing the story.

Sermsuk refused to accept the finding and was fired.

He tried in vain to get his source to confirm his comments and go on the record. The source is a businessman whose brother is close to some in Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai. He has inside knowledge of goings on at Suvarnabhumi.

"After the story was printed Thaksin became upset and accused us of intentionally trying to undermine the government's credibility.

"My source disappeared. I knew something was wrong. It was a nightmare," Sermsuk recalls.

"The Bangkok Post chose to fire me. After 22 years [working for the paper] that's how I was treated."

Sermsuk insists he was a victim of political pressure, claiming his critical views of Thaksin expressed in his former "Inside Politics" opinion-editorial-page column had made him a marked man.

The airport story was a convenient excuse for the paper to boot him out, he claims.

The management came under intense pressure to get rid of him, and two editors were "transferred" in circumstances Sermsuk and critics believe to have been "politically motivated".

Sermsuk still considers Thaksin's record of news-media intimidation far worse than the present military government's.

"What [the junta] did was what juntas do. It's normal. It has tried to counter the power [of Thaksin]. It needs time to put its house in order. But if [censorship] affects the public interest then we must clash [with the junta]. Public interest must come first."

"A Time magazine reporter asked me why the Post did not defend me. I told him it was politics, that there were more things behind the move. I believe to this day that politics were behind my sacking," he says.

He adds the action tarnished the Post's reputation.

Sermsuk has taken the newspaper to the Labour Court for alleged unfair dismissal and is seeking compensation and reinstatement.

A ruling will not be delivered until at least July, and the reporter often suffers bouts of self doubt. But, he reminds himself, those who know him understand him.

There is still bitterness about the lack of responsibility assumed by then editor David Armstrong, now the newspaper's chief executive.

Sermsuk insists Armstrong was at the editorial meeting when the story was discussed. He claims Armstrong did not protest against running the article. But when the time came to shoulder responsibility, it was passed to him and Chadin.

"The owners of the paper lack journalistic courage, and that's why I have ended up like this," said Sermsuk, who for the past two months has been working as a news editor for Issara News Centre, which covers the separatist conflict in the deep South.

"I want to urge [Armstrong] to reconsider whether he should take any responsibility."

Sermsuk has no regrets about his story, because it was in the public interest. "I simply did my duty."

"The Bangkok Post may be startled by the news [about the cracks], but I hope Armstrong will give me a call. If he wants a reconciliation, my conditions include reinstating Chadin, now working for the United Nations.

"He still breaths journalism every day," Sermsuk said.

The Nation contacted Armstrong, but he declined comment.

"I'm happy with my work at the moment," Sermsuk said, adding his son studied at the prestigious Saint Gabriel's College close to his current workplace. Things are convenient.

And what about the airport?

"I have heard from my military sources that the situation is worse than is being reported.

"If corruption is behind it, then construction will have been shoddy. The worst-case scenario is that the airport may have to be shut down if fatal accidents are to be avoided."

Pravit Rojanaphruk

The Nation

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