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THAILAND: ‘Reforms’, Emergency Situation Weigh Heavily on Media

BANGKOK, Jul 2 2010 (IPS) - Thailand’s media are not very happy these days, and it’s not only because of an emergency decree that turns three months old next week.

There are also government-instigated ‘media reforms’ in the offing, which has upset some members of the media here, along with press-freedom advocates.

Just this week, two forums discussing these reforms in the aftermath of Thailand’s biggest political conflict in decades attracted media professionals and observers, including academics.

Commented Thai-language daily ‘Khao Sod’ senior editor Kiatichai Pongpanich at the forum sponsored by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand: “The state looks at the media as a destructive element so (it wants) to reform them.”

As it is, media members here say, press freedom and freedom of expression have been curtailed with the continued imposition of a state of emergency in the capital and several provinces.

The emergency decree was first declared on Apr. 7, weeks into the anti-government protests by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) that were calling for a new election to replace the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.


Thousands of websites, including independent news portals like Prachatai.com, have been shut down by authorities under the emergency decree.

“Even now, we are not getting the truth about the number of websites being shut down,” said media reform activist and Thai Netizen Network board member Supinya Klangnarong. “We’re very concerned because after the emergency decree took effect in early April, we have heard that quite a number of Internet users have also been arrested.”

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders estimates that Thai authorities have blocked more than 50,000 websites so far, mostly for either being pornographic in nature or being “seditious”. But media activists say the real figure is much higher.

The emergency decree was a result of the government’s imposition of the Internal Security Act in April. The prolonged protest by tens of thousands of UDD supporters paralysed Bangkok’s shopping district. The ensuing military crackdown on the protesters on May 19 resulted in 88 deaths, majority of whom were civilians, and injured some 1,800 people.

Since then, the government has said that its plan to conduct media reforms within the next several months is part of its efforts at “national reconciliation”, since the political conflict had left Thai society severely divided.

In truth, talks on the need to revisit media practices arose after accusations came from all sides regarding biases in the local media during the three-month-long protest of the red shirts, so-called because of the demonstrators’ protest colour.

The perceived slants in coverage so incensed many Thais that journalists and the media entities they worked for became targets of public ire.

‘The Nation’ and ‘Bangkok Post’, for example, were forced to close down for a day after their offices were threatened with arson. Channel 3 received similar threats.

Thai journalists attending this week’s forums on ‘media reforms’ themselves acknowledged that the country’s media were far from perfect, especially in covering conflict situations.

They said that the recent political crisis saw the media divided into pro- and anti-government sides. This, the journalists admitted, led to biased reporting and self-censorship, among other things.

“We dramatise reports and paint them in red, yellow, white and other colours,” said ‘The Nation’ assistant group editor Kavi Chongkittavorn at a discussion organised by the South-east Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Thai Journalists Association (TJA), Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA), and Thai Media Policy Centre of Chulalongkorn University.

“We consider fact-checking as a waste of time,” added Kavi, who is also chairman of SEAPA. “Biases are coming through because some are too close to sources.”

SEAPA campaign and advocacy officer Kulachada Chaipipat said that during crises, the mainstream media often “fail to provide comprehensive explanation on what is happening and are very weak at putting into context about the events”.

She noted, however, that “access to truth is more difficult in crisis situations”. She added: “Even the media don’t know what is happening.”

Journalists have thus argued that the government should focus first on freedom of information, as well as on ensuring press freedom and freedom of expression.

Kiatichai also observed that state-initiated media reform could be problematic if the process does not involve media institutions and professionals, even as doubts about such reform simmer.

Among the reforms being suggested by independent groups and media professionals are the restructuring of state-controlled media – whose coverage angered groups that saw it as just a mouthpiece of the current government — a review of ethical standards, and a proposed law for the allocation of airwaves.

Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Office Minister Ong-art Klampaiboon, however, was quoted last week by local papers as saying that the government will not influence the media-reform process in any way. According to English-language daily ‘The Nation’, Ong-art said that the government “had no intention of dictating how media reform should proceed” and would only be a “facilitator”.

Kiatichai, though, stressed the importance of “thinking progressively not just about reforms, but also of media development”.

“Media resources are under-utilised for development,” he said. “For reconciliation to happen, we also need to eradicate corruption and poverty. The latter especially is very true, as we have seen in the red shirts’ demands and protests.”

*The Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org) is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

 
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