Asia-Pacific, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY: Thai On-Line Crusader Fights Silent Battle

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 1 2005 (IPS) - Every May 3 is dedicated to world press freedom, a day to remember and stress the importance of a free press in a free society. Yet, Somkiat Juntursima is a name that barely registers on the radar of Thailand’s media world. Nor the publication he edits, ‘Prachatai’, an on-line news website in Thai.

That is partly due to this publication’s age. It is only 11 months old, having appeared in cyberspace at the beginning of June, last year. And this media baby now has about 1,500 page views daily.

‘Prachatai’ was born out of the frustration Somkiat and a few like-minded journalists felt about the emerging pro-establishment bias in the Thai language media.

But it may not remain in obscurity for much longer, due to the fact that this electronic news site at is taking on its competitors, the Thai language press, with a passion. It has dared to focus on issues that the established press often avoids or ignores.

”We are different from the newspapers because we look for angles that reflect the people’s concerns, often the victims of government policy or actions,” Somkiat explained during an interview in his single-room editorial office tucked away at the end of a narrow street in a middle-class neighbourhood in this city.

Beside him were two female reporters tapping away at their laptops, working on the kind of stories that are ‘Prachatai’ staples. One had to do with pollution; the other was about public objection to an electricity-generating project to be constructed in their community.

The walls of the office had pictures that reflected the political flavour this e-publication’s 10- member staff identify with. The most dominant being one of armed Thai soldiers advancing on Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to crackdown on pro-democracy students, during the last days of the military government of Gen. Suchinda Karpayoon in 1992. Printed in red above this image are five words: ”No More Dictatorship in Thailand.”

Yet it is in the manner Somkiat’s editorial team have covered a violent chapter in contemporary Thai politics that has made ‘Prachatai’ distinct from the mainstream media crowd. ”Our coverage of the violence in southern Thailand is different from the rest,” said the 36-year-old editor. ”We want to expose the facts that the others keep away from.”

That was best reflected in the material ‘Prachatai’ began revealing soon after Thailand witnessed its darkest day in the South, when 78 men and boys belonging to the country’s Malay-Muslim minority died on Oct. 25 due to suffocation while in military custody.

Those deaths came after five Malay-Muslims were shot and killed by Thai security forces. The dead were among an estimated 1,300 protesters who had gathered that afternoon in front of the police station in the southern town of Tak Bai to demonstrate over the arrest, previously, of six other Muslims.

On Nov. 15, ‘Prachatai’ posted an account on its webpage that exposed the spin the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was giving to explain the manner in which the 78 Muslims died. The premier told the press that the deaths happened because the detainees were weak and exhausted since the incident took place during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

‘Prachatai’ ran a first person account of a man who had experienced that day’s military brutality. This narrative by 23 year-old Abdullah Jaeha, with a picture of his bandaged body, revealed that the victims had been stripped of their shirts, had their hands tied behind their backs, kicked by soldiers in heavy boots and then forced to lie one-on-top-of the other in military trucks.

”The soldiers brought a black plastic bag and covered my face,” Abdullah revealed. ”They did that to others also in the truck, but not all.”

In addition to that revelation, which nails the Thai military for the 78 deaths due to asphyxiation, Somkiat’s team also posted seven short video clips, some about three minutes long, on the violence that had erupted in Tak Bai.

It was an act of courage, since the Thaksin administration banned the distribution of any video compact discs with the footage of the Thai police and army using excessive force to quell the demonstrators.

”We have not stopped since then, because we have good contacts on the ground in that region,” admitted Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the e-publication’s manager. She lived up to her words last Friday, when the two web masters at ‘Prachatai’ uploaded a new video clip about violence in the south.

For human rights activists in Thailand, the diet of information that this e-publication serves daily is welcome relief in the wake of the pro-government bias that often pervades in the local language press, despite their independence.

”The Thai press portrays the violence in the South somewhat accurately, yet they fall very short when it comes to explaining why and the reasons behind the mounting deaths,” Sunai Phasuk, the Thai researcher of the global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS.

Follow-up accounts in the mainstream media often give greater weight to military or government views, added Sunai. ”They are often widely distorted and seek to legitimise the excessive use of violence and heavy-handed measures.”

That, Sunai pointed out, was prevalent after the deaths in Tak Bai and the killings in late April 2004 when over 100 Muslim youths died during a clash with the Thai military in the southern provincial town of Pattani – 32 of whom were shot while taking refuge in Pattani’s historic Krue Sae mosque.

For Thailand’s Muslim minority, mainstream media coverage has been offensive, since ”it has never been balanced.” According to a Muslim involved in a study of ‘Islam, the Media and Violence in Thailand’ at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, ”newspapers portray the Muslims as terrorists when they are also being killed in the South from the attacks.”

No wonder Malay-Muslims in the south are increasingly turning to ‘Prachatai,’ given the alternative perspective it is offering in the coverage of a conflict that has resulted in over 700 deaths since the latest outbreak of violence began in early January 2004.

Malay-Muslims, who live in the southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, make up about 2.3 million people of Thailand’s 64 million population, the majority of whom are Buddhist.

According to Human Rights Watch’s Sunai, the journalism flowing out of ‘Prachatai’ is distinct for other reasons too. It reveals a ”spirit of freedom” that is absent in the broadcast media, all of which are controlled by the government, and the newspapers, which are increasingly towing the government’s line due to ”economic pressure.”

”The Thai press used to be feisty and very daring and would speak out against strong governments in previous decades. But there is little of that now,” said the human rights activist. ”’Prachatai’ is reflecting that fighting spirit of the past.”

And nosy government officials may want to digest a warning Chiranuch, the e-publication’s manager, has in the event Bangkok begins to target ‘Prachatai’ for its journalism. ”If they come to control us, we will mount a backlash that they are violating democracy and press freedom,” she said.

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