The Nation Multimedia Group, which runs one of Thailand’s most-watched news channels, has softened the tone of its coverage of nationwide youth protests after being targeted by a consumer boycott.
Thais who back pro-democracy demonstrations that have roiled the country for months were incensed by the channel’s coverage, prompting an online movement to pressure big corporate advertisers to take sides.
Activists began taking to Twitter from August pressing companies, including the food delivery app Food Panda, Burger King and the Pizza Company, owned by Bangkok-listed leisure group Minor International, to stop advertising on The Nation TV.
Some companies pulled their marketing from the channel. Seven of its news presenters quit. And three months later, The Nation TV has begun reporting in a more nuanced fashion on the protests, according to the station, whose channel and website have recently included more reporting on the protesters’ demands.
“We plan to do a rebranding,” Shine Bunnag, the group’s chairman, told the Financial Times. “The situation in Thailand is very fragile, and management policy for the editorial team and the anchors is to stop hate speech, stop anything that will bring people to more conflict.”
Mr Bunnag confirmed the station had lost “a little bit” of advertising but would not say which companies had pulled ads. The coverage of the protests by The Nation, which also runs a news website, has shifted to such a degree that some “yellow shirt” royalists, who back the country’s conservative status quo in the country, are beginning to complain.
Flexing their muscles, protesters last week began calling for a boycott of another station, Amarin TV. The channel’s biggest shareholders are the billionaire Sirivadhanabhadki family, who own Thailand’s ThaiBev drinks group.
Thais have been asking unheard-of questions about the kingdom’s political institutions since the protests flared up in July including, most notably, the monarchy. They are increasingly also criticising the powerful business groups, mostly family-owned, which dominate Thai industry, fill consumers’ shopping baskets and play a central role in bolstering Thailand’s ruling institutions.
The drama has split opinion sharply in south-east Asia’s second-largest economy and put businesses in the uncomfortable position of having to choose sides or go to extreme lengths to be seen as remaining neutral.
On Wednesday, organisers have announced a demonstration in front of the Crown Property Bureau, the royal trust that holds the King’s real estate and corporate holdings, worth more than $40bn.
“Thailand’s oligarchs stand to lose from being dragged into the political fray,” said Pavida Pananond, associate professor of international business at Thammasat Business School in Bangkok.
The protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a more democratic constitution and curbs on the powers and wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Until now, Thais had avoided criticising the kingdom’s big companies for fear of being sued under the criminal code’s harsh defamation provisions, which businesses have used to threaten or silence activists and journalists.
But activists are now rallying followers via anonymous social media accounts, mostly on Twitter. A pro-protest group called No Salim Shopping List, which has garnered nearly 60,000 Twitter followers since August, has called for boycotts of companies seen as supportive of the Prayuth government.
“We don’t have to go out on the street to protest against the government,” a 21-year-old student leader of the group said. “Choosing what to buy is a way of protesting too.”
In a sign of Thais’ continued fear of confronting business, however, the campaigner declined to be identified and spoke to the FT on an encrypted chat app because of the fear of being sued.
No Salim, whose name is a reference to royalists, recently began targeting Thailand’s powerful conglomerates, which have grown wealthy over the past century in co-operation with governments and the monarchy. The group has called for a boycott of 7-Eleven, Thailand’s biggest convenience store chain, owned by the mega-conglomerate Charoen Pokphand.
CP recently won regulatory approval for its $10.6bn purchase of Tesco’s south-east Asian operations in a deal that will make the group Thailand’s most powerful retailer. However, campaigners have criticised the company’s business tactics, large market share and the fact that the CP “offers money to the king”.
On August 12, Dhanin Chearavanont, the company’s senior chairman, queued up alongside Thailand’s other billionaire family business owners to present financial donations to King Vajiralongkorn and his wife Queen Suthida to mark their birthdays.
The donations, which the royals can use for charitable projects or at their own discretion, are an annual event. The family chairmen and owners of ThaiBev, retailer Central Group and Boon Rawd Brewery, which makes Singha beer, were among those who took part. CP declined to comment.
The online tumult has ensnared some foreign companies, too. Shopee, the online retailer owned by Singapore’s Sea Ltd, last month became the target of a #BanShopee hashtag after suspending DemocStore, a purveyor of T-shirts, face masks and other political paraphernalia aligned with the opposition Progressive Movement. Shopee said the items violated its internal policies.
Even as The Nation has sought to rebalance its news coverage, it is holding a firm line in opposing the protesters’ demands to reform the monarchy.
“As a news company we disagree with the protesters on this issue,” Mr Bunnag said. “They should not bring the monarchy into the conflict.”
Follow John Reed on Twitter: @JohnReedwrites
Additional reporting by Nang Uraisin