Pita survives media shareholding case

Pita survives media shareholding case

Court says iTV was not a functioning media business, affirms MP status of former Move Forward leader

Pita Limjaroenrat arrives at the Constitutional Court to hear the ruling in his media-shares case on Wednesday afternoon. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)
Pita Limjaroenrat arrives at the Constitutional Court to hear the ruling in his media-shares case on Wednesday afternoon. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)

The Constitutional Court has ruled that Pita Limjaroenrat, the former leader of the election-winning Move Forward Party, did not hold shares in a media business when he applied to run for office last year, and his MP status remains intact.

The court stated on Wednesday that iTV Plc had ceased to be a media organisation in March 2007 when the government revoked its broadcasting licence for failure to pay concession fees.

The nine-member panel ruled 8-1 that Mr Pita did not violate the regulation prohibiting MPs from owning shares in media companies. The lone dissenter was Nakharin Mektrairat, a former professor of political science at Thammasat University. He also served as the secretary-general of the Constitution Drafting Assembly in 2014 and 2015.

A few minutes after the ruling, Mr Pita posted a photo on Facebook of himself and Move Forward leader Chaithawat Tulathon offering a wai, with a message saying: “Thank you for all your support. I’ll move forward and keep working, no more waiting.”

There has been speculation that Mr Chaithawat would hand the Move Forward leadership back to Mr Pita, who stepped aside last year pending the resolution of his court case.

However, Mr Pita told reporters that a leadership change was not on the agenda of the party at the moment, adding that his MP role would depend on the party whips. He also said he would continue to visit people as planned.

Mr Pita held 42,000 shares in iTV, or 0.0035% of the company's total, as the executor of the estate of his late father, their original owner. He transferred the shares to a relative last year after the holding was revealed.

The law that prohibits MPs from holding shares in a media business was intended to ensure that they could not unduly influence news coverage.

The judges said in their ruling that even if Mr Pita had held one share, he could have been guilty if iTV were a functioning media business. But they concluded that it was not, despite apparent attempts by opponents of Mr Pita to prove otherwise.

The court said that iTV remained a business entity only because it is still involved in a legal dispute with the government over unpaid concession fees, and it did not have any revenue from any media services.

Last year a video was leaked of an iTV shareholders’ meeting at which a company executive appeared to answer in the negative when asked a question about whether the company was operating a media business. However, the official minutes of the meeting subsequently described the company as operating a media business. The discrepancy between the two led to questions about whether the minutes had been doctored to support the case against Mr Pita.

The Election Commission nonetheless brought the complaint to the Constitutional Court, even after an EC inquiry panel recommended that it drop the charge that Mr Pita violated Section 151 of the Election Act. That section states that a candidate who applies to run as an MP while knowing that he might be in violation of election rules — in this case, holding shares in a media company — would face disqualification.

The Constitutional Court suspended Mr Pita as an MP on July 19 last year when it accepted the complaint from the EC. On the same day, the joint House and Senate sitting voted to reject his renomination for prime minister. He had lost an earlier premiership vote the week before.

The Move Forward Party won the May 14, 2023, election with 151 House seats but it failed to form a government because the second runner-up Pheu Thai Party, which had 141 seats and was its former coalition ally, instead teamed up with 10 other parties and secured 320 votes in the 500-member House.

Mr Pita is now in the clear but the Move Forward Party faces another major challenge next week. The Constitutional Court on Jan 31 will rule on whether the party’s policy to amend Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the lese-majeste law, represents an attempt to overthrow the constitutional monarchy. Such a finding could set in motion a move to dissolve the party.

The case was filed on July 12, 2023 by lawyer Thirayuth Suwannagasorn. He is best known for representing Phra Buddha Isara, a monk who was a key agitator in the Bangkok Shutdown protests that led to the 2014 military coup. He was later defrocked and is now known as Suwit Thongprasert.

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