A wake up call to the media community

The 16 September resignation of Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior reporter of The Nation and acerbic critic of the coup government of Thai premier Gen Prayut Chan-ocha due to mounting pressure within the newspaper, particularly from his own colleagues, has put a spotlight on deep seated issues among the Thailand media.

This unfortunate, yet damaging turn of events follows a day after Pravit’s release from a second military detention in an unknown location where he was held mostly incommunicado and in a closed room for two days. Pravit’s resignation serves as a lesson learnt for The Nation, but also a wake-up call to the Thai media community to examine its own state of affairs.

The outspoken political reporter was summoned by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) for a second “attitude adjustment” detention on 13 September for two separate social media posts about the legitimacy of Gen Prayut and the appointment of a new chief of national security. The reason for the summons was not even explained to the public until after his release on 15 September.

The anti-coup reporter was released on condition that he would not challenge NCPO’s order against criticizing against the coup, the military government and the monarchy. The order came with a veiled threat to put him in jail for 15 years if he continues his critical social media posts.

The issues that led to his resignation are not new. In fact, they have festered in Thai media ever since the country slid into the political crisis more than a decade ago, as journalists took different positions in the political divide.

Media houses and professional organisations have completely failed to articulate a workable position on journalism ethics and the protection of media freedom vis-à-vis the political conflict situation.

The Nation case reflects the overall situation in the Thai media. In general, the extent to which political ideology of owners and/or media workers – including collectively as organisations – is acceptable has been left unchecked; and at times is blown out of proportion crossing the line separating legitimate self-expression and journalism ethics.

Today, the situation is amplified with the rise of self-expression on social media. In many instances, media workers irresponsibly use social media as a tool for gathering or sharing information, as well as expressing personal opinion beyond conduct of good journalism.

As The Nation has yet to release an official explanation about Pravit’s resignation, two burning questions need to be answered. Firstly, why was he effectively penalized in the paper for his self-expression over social media? This question is posed to media people on how they fully embrace, understand and objectively analyze the right to freedom of expression from the perspective of their role as journalists.

Secondly, did he violate the company policy, code of ethics or staff guidelines for using social media in expressing his political belief? This incident must reopen discussions on such policies of media companies including The Nation on the use of social media by their employees to promote the news content and expressing opinion.

As it stands, it is commendable that The Nation Group’s editors took a collective decision to call for the release of Pravit on the ground of press freedom, and call out the NCPO’s unlawful detention of their staff.

Regrettably though, the company’s executives choose to contain the fall-out of their first action by bowing to a narrow and partisan view of certain social groups including some of their staff over protecting Pravit’s right to express his strong beliefs, and to tolerate different views within the organisation.

The decision was provoked by a certain section of the staff, who also used social media for political expression. However, they apparently chose to reserve the protection of free speech for like-minded views.

If this punitive measure does not respond to any ethical lapse as a journalist, then it was unfair to Pravit to leave his job, although he agreed to resign to calm the storm in the office.

Included among these unresolved questions that has long decapitated the Thai media is its capability to assert its role to articulate and report on lese majeste offences. By and large, a fair and constructive criticism on public interest issues is protected under the Thai Penal Code, but it has never been clear whether protection can be extended to completely report on lese majeste cases.

Of late, the prosecution of lese majeste charges in many instances has been broadened to include even even fair criticism. Therefore, the Thai media’s response to this legal stranglehold is self-censorship, which undeniably compromises their journalistic practice and freedom. At the very least, Thai media has never tested this limitation based on journalistic practice.

Admittedly, it would have been much easier to address these intertwined issues in countries under a functioning democracy, instead of current political conditions. Nevertheless, the Thai media needs to take courage, wisdom and unity now to address this malaise in the face of unresolved deepening polarized politics in Thai society, in which the media is both a party and a victim.

Beyond Thailand, however, journalists all over the world are challenged on how to enforce professional ethics in the era of converged media platforms where all the mainstream press have online extensions, and share public space in using social media as a communication tool to promote its products and reputation.

The online space has emerged as increasingly powerful, more responsive, and at times more effective platform to disseminate information. Citizens, including journalists and politicians, have used this space to mobilize public support on issues which at times are off-limits or sensitive to the state, and especially where traditional media is faced with limits on reporting and opinion.

Nonetheless, while it should be clear that journalism, whether practiced online or off is to be protected at all costs, online expression may require different forms of regulation or codes of ethics, considering its many levels of users.

Today in Thailand, media reform is being framed under the military government, with a direction to further curtail the press. The government should be reminded that any initiative to regulate the media industry, whether with or without the consent of the media community, must and will be measured and contested against the internationally-accepted principles of the freedom of expression and press freedom, including guarantees under the current interim constitution and its predecessors.

By definition, journalism is not free speech. It is in fact a form of expression regulated by media ethics and responsibility. However, these limitations are based on core principles of truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability.

It is unhealthy and counter-productive to democracy to allow the state and powers-that-be to dictate the limits of media freedom or free speech. Enforcing ethics and professional standards through media self-regulation articulately and effectively would be the best defense of press freedom in the current situation. The media community must be reminded to raise their guard against any “media reform” initiative that will lower press freedom standards.

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