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THAILAND: Media Caught in Red-or-Yellow Divide Too

BANGKOK, Mar 11 2010 (IPS) - Anyone who is still trying to look for neutrality or balance in the Thai media in these days of political ferment, ahead of large anti-government protests expected in the capital, has a pretty tough job.

“Thai society is very divided politically and I don’t think the mass media are helping at all. Rather, they have become part of this political division,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior journalist at the English-language daily ‘The Nation’, said in an interview.

He is referring to the rising political temperature in the country these days, as tension rises ahead of the rallies being organised in the coming days by the red-shirted supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), whose patron is the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protesters plan to get hundreds of thousands up to a million red shirts, called so because the colour of their ‘uniforms’, to descend upon the capital to challenge the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They say they are coming to protest injustice and their disenfranchisement by the Bangkok-based political elite that had reversed electoral mandates, including the election of pro-Thaksin politicians after the former premier was ousted in a 2006 coup.

The rallyists are coming in from Thailand’s rural heartland in the north and north-east, many of whose people support Thaksin, who was also convicted in an earlier corruption case, and believe he has also been a victim of injustice.

The rallies also come two weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling that found Thaksin guilty of abusing power when he was in power by introducing favourable policies that benefited his family-owned telecommunications empire. It ruled that the government could seize 1.5 billion U.S. dollars of Thaksin’s 2.3 billion dollars in frozen assets.

News of the rallies and the government’s warnings about trouble have prompted some offices to warn staff to stay away from some areas or ask them to work from home. Roads near rally sites will also be closed on Friday.

Pravit explains that majority of the mainstream media have become polarised into the ‘yellow’ – the colour of the supporters of the government and those against Thaksin — and ‘red’ media.

In a society so divided politically – as it has been since the 2006 military coup against Thaksin – there is only a small percentage of Thai media that try to fairly present both sides of the story, according to Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of the independent web newspaper

“I think only about 30 percent are trying to present balanced stories about this current political situation. The rest all have taken sides,” she said.

“A big mess” is how a journalist working for a leading Bangkok-based daily, who requested anonymity, calls the Thai media when it comes to covering the political tensions in the country.

” ‘Bangkok Post’ seems to be leaning towards the ‘centre red’, while ‘The Nation’ is now extreme yellow. In that sense, you have a balance of views,” quipped the journalist, referring to the two English-language dailies in Thailand.

He added: “‘Bangkok Post’ seems to take sadistic glee in running reds-related stories to make the yellow feel downtrodden while ‘The Nation’ runs yellow stories to make the reds feel rotten. I think both sides want to win.”

It is unfortunate that some media institutions “seem to want to sow panic and fear in the society (by the kind of stories they release),” adds Chiranuch.

“Most of the stories we see now in relation to the rallies is a projection of how the violence will happen. We don’t see them questioning the government side on how they’re going to commit to using non-violent measures when trying to contain the crowd, for example,” she said.

‘Post Today’ journalist Cholticha Lermtong disagrees with the perception that the mainstream media have a pro-government stance.

“The reason why mainstream Thai media have a bad attitude toward the reds is because they have prior experience of violence from them in the past,” she said, referring to the series of April 2009 demonstrations where journalists working for government-run media institutions were threatened with bodily harm and invectives.

At the same time, she said that there is “only a small group from the red shirts” that resort to violence. “I still believe that a majority of reds do not want violence,” she added.

But in truth, the pro-Thaksin supporters’ mistrust of the mainstream media has some basis, Pravit explains.

“After the September 2006 coup d’etat that ousted Thaksin, the editorials that came out in the mainstream media all declared the coup as justifiable and I think that was the genesis of the view that mainstream media are anti-red shirts,” he said.

Ahead of the weekend rallies, Pravit says he would be worried if the government “prematurely and unjustifiably shuts down pro-red shirts media” under the Internal Security Act, which the government is implementing until Mar. 23. “That would upset the crowd and precipitate violence,” he said.

Already, according to journalists who were interviewed, many mainstream media institutions carry an already visible anti-red shirts tone in their products. “Adopting this tone in the stories will only create more anger among the protesters as they will feel they are being treated unfairly again,” said Chiranuch.

Moreover, she continued, this gives the impression that “the right to assembly is an illegal act”, when it is not.

For the other journalist with a leading Bangkok-based daily, the point is that the current manner of reporting is creating the “misperception that one political group is more violent than the other”. “I’m not too sure how it came to be that the yellows were perceived as violent. Time and time again, in the April (2009) riots and other incidents, they (red shirts) have proven incapable of keeping their hordes in control,” said the senior journalist, a self-confessed yellow supporter.

Time Chuastapanasiri, senior researcher with the Bangkok-based media watch group, Media Monitor, takes a more distant view of the situation. “Each media outfit has its own way of reporting this story and are usually driven by different goals. And it’s a reality that conflict and violence have more news value,” he said.

To make sense of the very partisan picture, audiences are turning to sources other than local mainstream media to understand the nuances of a very complicated political situation.

“A lot of educated Thais will be turning to foreign media to try to get as much information as possible. It’s strange but it’s true,” said Pravit.

For Chiranuch, the new media play a crucial role in presenting alternative sides to the story. “I think people will look for alternative sources online,” she said.

But Time cautions that the foreign and online media are also prone to biased reporting, and that quality reporting must understand “the political context and report with objectivity”.

In the end, local journalists find their own ways of dealing with the country’s biggest political story at the moment, one that they are also involved in as in citizens.

Cholticha says that whatever her political leanings, she will try to “approach protesters with respect and neutrality”.

“Despite my vehemently yellow-shirt political affiliation, I honestly try to be objective when reporting news,” added the journalist with the Bangkok-based daily quoted earlier.

For Pravit, space must be created for all sides in the fractious political scene to express themselves. “I think we have to open the space for different voices to end this division once and for all.”

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