Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Prasong Lertratanawisute doesn't come across as a hard-boiled investigative journalist. But as managing editor of the Bangkok newspaper Prachachat Thurakij, Prasong has come up with a series of coups, the most recent of which helped topple Thailand's former Deputy Prime Minister, Sanan Kachornprasart, last year on charges of falsely declaring his assets.
Current Premier Thaksin Shinawatra could be Prasong's next casualty. Last September, Prachachat broke the story that Thaksin had transferred more than $50 million worth of shares from his holding company, Shin Corp., to his maid, driver, and security guard--allegedly to hide part of his wealth. That prompted his indictment last December by the National Counter Corruption Commission. If Thaksin is found guilty, the Premier could be stripped of his post and banned from politics for five years. In the unlikely event that happens, Thaksin has vowed to run the government from the sidelines through the majority Thai Rak Thai Party.
SCAMMING MONKS. Prasong, 40, has been poking around the corridors of power from the start. After studying journalism at Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University, Prasong got his first taste of investigative reporting 17 years ago when, at age 23, he uncovered fraud inside the Education Ministry. Since then, he has produced a steady stream of stories exposing everything from tax evasion by a former Prime Minister's daughter to monks who were selling fake receipts for donations to senior government officials.
Most of these stories were leaked by anonymous sources, says Prasong. It wasn't until the collapse of Bangkok Bank of Commerce PLC, in 1996, that he honed the skills of the paper chase that have served him so well since. While most other newspapers treated the bank's demise as a routine business failure, Prasong smelled corruption and started digging. After burrowing through loan documents and stock market records for three months, he and his team of reporters stumbled on a loan scandal and graft involving senior officials and powerful businessmen. "That story made me realize how essential the paper trail and research are for investigative journalism," he says. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle."
More recently, says Prasong, technological advances and the passing of the Official Information Act in 1997 have made the job easier. Instead of "waiting for somebody in a dark corner" to slip him information, Prasong says he stays in his office and surfs the Internet. In 1999, by piecing together information gleaned from a Commerce Ministry Web site containing public records on company ownership, Prasong was able to blow the whistle on Deputy Prime Minister Sanan.
Thanks to the Official Information Act and a new constitution, also passed in 1997, Thai journalists now enjoy one of the most unfettered working environments in Asia, Prasong maintains. But he frets about the growing influence of big business over the media. For example, several journalists at television channel iTV were sacked by its owner, the very Shin Corp. controlled by Thaksin, after refusing to cut off coverage of the politician's indictment during the runup to January's national elections. Prasong says he has never received direct threats, despite years of writing hard-hitting stories. But he has felt pressure: When the Thaksin story broke, a couple of key players from Thai Rak Thai visited Prasong's office to lobby on the Premier's behalf. "They asked for my sympathy," he recalls. "I said, `Let Thaksin tell the truth to the public."'
A teetotaler and nonsmoker, Prasong likes to unwind after a hard day at the office by going home and playing with his two kids or watching TV. He has a long list of awards from the Thailand Journalists Assn. and is often compared with Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters for The Washington Post who helped bring down President Richard M. Nixon. If Thaksin is found guilty, Prasong has no plans to celebrate. "I'm not his rival," he says. "The only thing that will make me glad is that I am able to complete my job as a journalist." In Asia, that's quite an achievement.