Thai media, civil society discuss objectivity in covering on-going political crisis

Thai media groups and members of civil society agreed in the recently concluded World Press Freedom Day observance in Bangkok that fair and responsible reporting is crucial in addressing the political crisis in the kingdom.

Thai media somberly observed the occasion on 3 May this year as many journalists themselves had a divided opinion of what is really “a responsible role of the media”—whether mainstream press or new media—to help bring about a peaceful end to the country’s protracted and violently escalating political conflict.

A recent survey conducted by Suan Dusit independent pollster on “Thai Media Today” showed that 28.10% of the 1,251 respondents perceived the media as enjoying relatively more freedom.

However, the survey—conducted between 29 April and 2 May—noted that despite this, the media failed to provide its audience with complete facts during the current political crisis, at best giving only partial information owing to challenges facing the different media outlets.

During the past five years of the unprecedented political polarization in Thailand, the media has become an unwitting party to the conflict as each side sought to use it as a political weapon.

For one thing, the emergence of the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement with unconventional media campaigns, along with the democratization of the media—in which the mainstream press no longer dominates the flow of information—have placed freedom of expression in Thailand to a crucial test.

Nevertheless, the critical debate among journalists in the face of the current political crisis is not so much about media’s independence but rather the temptation of taking sides in the on-going conflict, thus increasing the risk of jeopardizing the government’s current peace-building efforts, which also happen to be supported by members of civil society.

Observers of the media’s coverage of the violence-plagued political stand-off that has been going on since the anti-government Red Shirts resumed their street protests in Bangkok on 12 March, noted that media outlets with outright political bias are to be blamed for giving false information and distorted facts about  events and statements of leaders from both sides.

These observers also criticized the government for taking a double-standard approach in controlling information by shutting down the media outlets that either supported or sympathized with the Red Shirt cause, at the same time using the state-owned and -controlled media outlets as a tool to demonize the protesters.

During a panel discussion on “How can free media contribute to peace-building?” organized by the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and its allies as part of their World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebration, Sunai Phasuk, an advisor to Human Right Watch, said the media should maintain a certain degree of professionalism in its reporting, and should give out facts, not fiction, notwithstanding the political stance of the concerned media outlet. Sunai, however, said that from what he observed, the media outlets of both the government and the Red Shirts have on several occasions presented false information and distorted facts to their respective audiences.

Sunai’s remarks were supported by other panelists, including Dr. Ekaphan Pinthavanit, a professor at Mahidol University’s Peace Study and Development Center, who concurred that the media organizations with partisan views performed irresponsibly. He cited as an example the two sides’ different interpretations of the video clips of the 10 April violent clash between the security forces and Red Shirt protesters at Rachadamnoen Avenue.

While acknowledging that partiality undeniably exists among the individual media outlets, Dr. Ekaphan said it should only be allowed as long as the media organization remains accountable for the political belief it espouses. The academic suggested that media organizations with a political agenda can still perform a professional service by attempting to find common ground for the opposing parties.

Dr. Pana Thongmee-arkom, a member of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) said 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,” said Dr. Pana. The NTC said that the media with its respected status in a democratic society must promote a peaceful solution as it is a well-informed witness to the political situation.

The views shared in the panel discussion are crucial to the on-going efforts by professional media groups and civil society to explore proper ethical conduct and professional practices in the industry in order to promote peace, at the same time ensuring that free expression and press freedom are not suppressed.

TJA and its allies have been heavily criticized for failing, through their self-regulatory mechanism, to address what many view as a “free expression overdose” that inadvertently worsens the current political crisis.

Nevertheless, Sunai believed that self-regulation is still the way to go for the media. He said the state’s attempts to use censorship on the mainstream media, online expression and the opposition’s media outlets only proved to be ineffective. “It only causes a balloon effect, given the power of information technology, and only serves to aggravate social hatred,” said the human rights advocate.

Dr. Somkiat Onwimol, an independent media producer and news commentator, suggested that the new media should be allowed to chart its course and regulate itself. On the other hand, he suggested that the mainstream media should focus on strengthening its traditional role.

“The mainstream media must adhere to its standards of professionalism by consistently providing facts and searching for the truth, objectively educating the public about current affairs and democracy, offering independent opinions and views and offering itself as a public platform for all voices in society,” said the veteran news commentator.

Sunai said self-regulation of the media industry should be actively encouraged. Players in new media must also do likewise if only to keep the free expression environment healthy. “The media professional groups should impose stricter ethical control and provide effective and appropriate remedy to address irresponsible practices by the press and should be in a position to share their experience in news reporting and introduce self-regulatory measures to the new media,” said the human right advocate.

Dr. Ekaphan also suggested the professional media groups should invite experts to educate the media about the concept of peace journalism and media reporting in a conflict situation.

They all agreed that the public also has to shoulder a fair share of responsibility in achieving peace by learning to tolerate pluralism in the media, using critical judgment to screen information they receive and be more open to different opinions and diverse sources of information.