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THAILAND: ‘Media’s Election Coverage: Numbers High, Quality Low’

BANGKOK, Nov 24 2009 (IPS) - Elections are always a period of intense coverage by the Thai media. The sheer surfeit of stories on candidates of every political stripe and selected issues is guaranteed to raise media visibility a notch or two higher.

But such heightened visibility does not necessarily translate to ‘expertise’ about the issues, no thanks to a complex set of factors.

For veteran Thai journalists and broadcasters, their country’s media are burdened by the complexities of Thai society and thus are not able to play their role well in disseminating information on crucial matters.

“I am dissatisfied by the lack of effort from the media to engage the people in politics after every election. They have an important role in reporting what politicians have been doing since they were elected,” said Dr Chirmsak Pinthong, a veteran journalist and broadcaster as well as former Senate member, at a seminar jointly organised by the German non-profit Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Thailand’s Office of the Election Commission (ECT) in this capital on Nov. 23.

Dubbed ‘The Role of Media in Election Campaigns’, the seminar gathered together around 50 journalists, ECT representatives, non-governmental organisation workers and academicians. It focused on the roles media play in election campaigns and examined the differences between the media practices in Germany and Thailand during election periods.

According to Chirmsak, instead of educating the public and continuously monitoring politicians, the media encourage “lethargy in politics” such that the people end up thinking “our job is just to vote, and that’s it”.


“There should be a media campaign to expose undesirable politicians, but I am not seeing this,” said Thepchai Yong, director of the government-run Thai Public Broadcasting Service.

Instead, Thepchai continued, the media sometimes “give airtime to corrupt politicians” in the form of a “tour of rich politicians’ homes…”, which “amplifies the luxuries of politicians and conveys the wrong values to the people”. As for post-elections monitoring, the moderator for Radio Thailand of the country’s Public Relations Department, Fongsanan Charmornjan, urged the media to closely watch the performance of Thai parliamentarians, particularly those who have a penchant for “disappearing” during working hours.

She added that the media, with the help of the ECT, should publish a list of parliamentarians who do not attend meetings, which denies the parliament a quorum.

“A parliamentarian’s job is to attend meetings, not go to funerals,” said Fongsanan. “Politicians of a hundred thousand funerals (are) a big problem in Thai politics.”

If Chirmsak could have his way, he would rather see the ECT focusing not only on election management but also on developing programmes that would educate the public about democratic values. He said these are important if everybody wants to see the patronage system go in Thai politics.

“The most influential factor in elections is the patronage system, where one repays the good things another has done for them. [Many politicians] channel that to vote buying and other corrupt practices,” he said. Other factors that put an ugly mark on Thai elections include the lack of public awareness and education about politics and officials, cheating, and the media’s seeming inability to be vigilant and act as watchdogs, he added.

Thepchai cited Germany’s very clear guidelines and rules about the scope of the media’s duties in helping maintain a thriving democracy coupled by responsibility and awareness, as reported by Germany’s Hans-Bredow Institute director Dr Wolfgang Schulz and researcher Stefan Heilmann at the seminar. A society that adheres to regulations is what he wants to see in his country, he said.

“There are similar rules and regulations in Thailand, but people don’t follow them,” he added.

Thepchai, however, believes that there are two kinds of electorate — those who cast their votes for the vote-buying candidate or are under pressure to vote for certain individuals, and a growing number of individuals who raise questions about politicians’ fitness to govern and their respective platforms.

“The media’s role here is to provide that second group enough and accurate information. . . . And the ECT should start developing a new generation of voters who know what the political parties are doing,” he said. “It is not enough [for the ECT] to go on air and say ‘Come out and vote’.”

For his part, ECT secretary general Dr Suthiphon Thaveechaiyagarn urged the media to cooperate with the elections body in working “towards a common goal” and understand the complexities of election rules and regulations.

“The confusion in the media about election laws comes from the fact that many elections rules in the national and local levels contradict themselves. This confuses electoral officials and trickles down to the media and eventually the public as well,” he said.

The media, he added, is further limited by the lack of print space and air time to present these rules to the public, leading to misunderstanding and tension among the ECT, media and the electorate.

“If media members don’t understand, then they should ask us, and we will explain (the rules) to you. But if you make your own assumptions and present facts about something not entirely true, then people misunderstand. It is difficult to correct public misperception later on because the damage has already been done,” said Suthiphon, referring to past instances when the public questioned election procedures and the proclamation of winners, the basis for which was not clear.

He assured the members of the media, however, that the ECT is exerting efforts to correct these contradictory rules, as well as encouraging more transparency in the election body.

Beyond righting the election rules, Fongsanan said everything boils down to constant monitoring. “I don’t have much hope in our elections system and our politicians, but I have hope in the monitoring system by independent groups in society,” she said.

Thepchai echoes Fongsanan’s view. “Good governance should have transparency, which will make it easier for us to monitor political organisations and accountability,” he said.

*Asia Media Forum (http://theasiamediaforum.org)

 
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