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THAILAND: Media Grapple with Questions of Credibility, Bias

BANGKOK, May 15 2010 (IPS) - Two months into Thailand’s anti-government protests and as an army-led blockade is underway to end them, the media are struggling with challenges to their credibility and perceptions of bias in the South-east Asian country’s gravest political stalemate in years.

Already divided before the protests started on Mar. 12, media have also been working under a state of emergency that was declared in April and was this week extended beyond Bangkok and surrounding areas. Navigating the polarised environment is far from easy, journalists say.

“The biggest challenge journalists are facing now is how to get the truth. The second difficulty is how to keep themselves safe,” Nophakhun Limsamarnphun, front-page editor of the English-language daily ‘The Nation’, said in an interview.

But there is not one truth for all 67 million Thais, and different versions of it are reflected in the different media, whom many tend to categorise into those that back the government, those that give space to both government and anti-government sides, and those that are by the protesters themselves.

The red-shirted protesters with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have been demanding that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call for a new election. They say that Abhisit came to power not through an electoral mandate but through manoeuvring by the military and after the negation of electoral mandates won by political parties they voted for. These parties, like the UDD, have as their patron fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile and who the government says is financing the protests.

Since early April, UDD protesters have occupied the Rajprasong commercial area and on May 13, the government cut off water, electricity and access to it. It ordered the blockade after the red shirts refused to end their protest despite the offer of a November poll by Abhisit, who has since revoked his offer.

Just as the protests have divided society, they have divided the media.

Government media outlets have come under fire for bias, and some state television announcers have received threats. Mainstream media have been faulted for reporting mostly the government’s views, or failing to provide balance and space for opposing views.

In March, a grenade was thrown at the state-owned National Broadcasting Services of Thailand. In April, news reports said that red shirts surrounded Channel 3’s broadcasting van and told the staff to leave. A brick was thrown through a side window of the van, they added.

The Thai Journalists Association (TJA) had said: “Media workers are not a contesting party to the UDD protesters. . . . We urge the leaders and the protesters to cease any action that is perceived as threatening or intimidating to the media and instigating violence.”

Independent publications like the ‘Prachatai’ have also gotten into trouble – and its website site blocked under state of emergency rules.

Pana Thongmee-arkom of the National Telecommunications Commission say impartiality is almost impossible to achieve. “What matters is that the media offers balanced information. So far, the information that mainly come from the mainstream press is imbalanced and reflects more the views of urban dwellers and not much of the rural people’s opinions,” he told a May discussion.

Asawin Nedpogaeo, dean of communication arts at Dhurakij Pundit University, said: “What’s coming out now in terms of news and opinion is largely influenced by the government because of the strict controls put in place after the violent clashes that happened in the past weeks.”

After several violent encounters in April, clashes and deaths from snipers’ shots have occurred since May 13. On Saturday, news reports said at least 42 people had died since the Apr.10 clash and more than 1,400 injured.

But for Pravit Rojanaphruk of ‘The Nation’ newspaper, it is not just about censorship: “They (media) have become even more partisan and bloodthirsty and think a violent ending (to the protests) is acceptable.”

For the red shirts, Asawin explained, “Not only have they been treated unfairly by laws, they have also been discredited by mainstream media’s coverage of their protest action.”

“The red shirts have been voraciously consuming foreign news media, translating them into Thai, printing them out and distributing them among the protesters,” Pravit said.

“The media did a very good job of trying to scare the public, not without the help of the government,” said long-time Thailand resident CJ Hinke, whose Freedom Against Censorship Thailand website was among the 600 blocked under the emergency.

Often, many fear “being judged and saying the wrong things” and this comes out as self-censorship, including in the media, Hinke added.

But Nophakun disagreed: “It may be true in the past and there is indeed some truth in the perception that we don’t want to be judged negatively and to conform with mainstream thought, because we try to be nice and not to hurt other people. But this is not the case now as more people are starting to speak out.”

This, he said, is happening in the UDD protesters’ voicing of problems about poverty and exclusion. “I think there is some truth to what protesters have said. The problem has existed for years but no one ever addressed it,” said Nophakun.

Thus far, he said, the situation is “getting better as we are getting more respect from the protesters and we are now being allowed in the protest site”. On Saturday, reports said there were few or no journalists in the Rajprasong protest site amid fears of a crackdown.

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