As dust settles in Bangkok, media in Thailand considers its own injuries

25 May 2010

Days after the government crackdown on a drawn-out protest and the ensuing riots in Bangkok, media workers in Thailand are counting the cost to its own sector.

“The Bangkok Post” quoted Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanawisit on 22 May 2010 that 85 people were killed and 1,898 injured from the time the Red Shirt rally started on 12 March 2010 until it was dispersed on 19 May. Some of the deaths and injuries were reported during the rioting that followed the dispersal operation. Of this casualty list, two journalists were killed and more than half a dozen were wounded, all caused by gunfire.

But as the smoke from the streets start to clear and Bangkok residents begin to resume their normal activities, the media and online communities in Thailand are bracing for a possible backlash against free expression triggered by the past months’ emotional and divisive events.

Though there were no overt moves on the part of government to censor news coverage at the height of the military operation last week, a foreign freelance correspondent, Simon Roughneen, observed that it was difficult to get information from government spokespersons beyond what they were authorized to release to the media.

Foreign and Thai journalists stressed that other government sources have remained accessible, but they acknowledged that due to the tension and sensitivity during last week’s military operation and the subsequent riots, getting more information is becoming more complicated.

In the aftermath of the violent clashes and the rioting, the government kept Bangkok under a state of emergency. Curfew in the capital was extended up to 28 May, even as curfew was also imposed on 23 other provinces.

The curfew—now extended for another week—inevitably creates significant hours during which time information, news, and transparency are compromised. Journalists are actually allowed to request to be embedded with roving police and military teams during curfew hours, one Thai reporter noted. They are also free to stay in touch with sources to try to keep up with developments and policy pronouncements, or to determine the curfew’s impact on the lives of citizens. On their own, however, journalists in Thailand are prevented from observing government and military operations, and chronicle the curfew’s implementation.

Beyond the curfew, the tensions of the past weeks have spurred actions against electronic media.

“The Bangkok Post” reported that some 600 soldiers were deployed in Ubon Ratchathani on 20 May 2010 to close down two community radio stations owned by Red Shirt members. The station operators were accused of broadcasting propaganda messages and inciting people to commit violent acts.

According to “The Bangkok Post”, Pichet Thabudda, an operator of one of the stations, was arrested and broadcast equipment were confiscated.

Officials are also keeping a close watch on Internet-based media and forums. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, executive director and webmaster of the independent Prachatai website, cites a “Thairath” newspaper report that the government has blocked 1,150 websites since 19 May 2010.

Prachatai itself is a victim of this crackdown. The independent news aggregator has moved its website six times in the past month, trying to stay a step ahead of government efforts to completely block the website.

Chiranuch adds that Prachatai’s Twitter account was blocked over the weekend. The group’s Facebook account had been blocked by the government weeks earlier, but its feed-function still works, Chiranuch said, hence providing an alternative means of getting out the news.

Asked if he expects the government to use more repressive measures on the media as a result of the Red Shirt riot, a foreign journalist who requested anonymity said he does, adding that “the situation is repressive enough already.”

Even prior to the skirmishes and deadly clashes of April and May, Thailand’s free expression environment was already vulnerable and compromised. The polarizing politics and protests of the past four years had heightened concerns over the abuse of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act and lese majeste laws to stifle free expression and political discourse.

Beyond the deaths of two journalists, meanwhile, the media in Thailand—both foreign and local—had been harassed and physically assaulted by all sides of the heated protests. Whether from the so-called Red or Yellow Shirt camps, media have come under fire, and have been pressured and pulled to give more weight to either side. In the misguided process to battle of media’s loyalty, media representatives, vehicles, and even headquarters have been attacked.

The events of the past weeks will likely see the media remaining vulnerable.

There is a need as much for journalist safety training and equipment, as for a general push for media literacy and appreciation on all sides and among all stakeholders. Government and military officials, protesters, media owners, journalists, and finally even citizens as consumers of news and commentary must take time and make effort to understand the role and value of free and independent media in any society.

As Thailand’s political crisis continues, so too will the vulnerability of the press that will have to cover the unfolding story.

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About SEAPA

SEAPA (www.seapa.org)  is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow if Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism; the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association; and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism.

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