Media under Attack

16 September 2002
Source: By Kavi Chongkittavorn

Overviews

It was 167 years ago that a missionary introduced the first printing press to Thailand. Since then, the Thai press has been a major social force that brought about democratic changes. Content of media reflected social and political changes–some were peaceful while others were violence. In earlier years, the Royal courts used press as the official medium for acts, decrees, ministerial proclamations and public announcements of newly promulgated laws. In early 1910’s, Siam, former name of Thailand, had 20 dailies, including one Chinese and two English-language dailies. Today, there are more than 150 newspapers but only 29 national dailies with 12 in Thai, 6 in Chinese, 3 in English with combined circulation of 2 million copies per day.

The Thai press followed the contour of Thai politics vigorously since the country switched from the absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932 with the broadcasting media still under the government control. In the process, successive governments tried to suppress press freedom, except for a short period after the October 1973 bloody revolution, which toppled a dictatorial regime. Media freedom has gradually progressed as journalists become more professional and their quality of news coverage and analysis improved. But it was not until 1997, when the country was hardest hit by the financial and economic crisis that brought swift social changes both in political and economic fields.

Thai media’s role and new crisis

When the so-called People’s Constitution was promulgated in October 1997, it was a watershed in Thai political history. The new charter has laid down for the first time a comprehensive provision to protect media freedom and freedom of expression. It has a total of 67 articles related to promote and protection of individual rights and freedom. Broadcasting media for the first time has the same freedom that the printing press has been enjoying. In a way, the Thai media were very much part of the constitution as they were able to mobilize the mass to back the time-consuming constitutional drafting process and provide the much needed forum for inputs from all walks of life. They also served as a watchdog as the society was undergoing social transformation. For a year, newspapers were filled with views and comments from experts and laymen. Closed to one million views were submitted to the charter drafting committee. Furthermore, the governments in power at that time respected the media freedom and did not interference.

As the Thai media started to relish their democratic role, they were encountering new dilemma brought about by the Asian financial and economic crisis in July 1997. The devaluation of Thai currency coupled with expensive import printing papers and the sudden lost of advertising revenue impacted on the well-beings of Thai media as a whole. A total of 3,000 journalists and media-related personnel were out of job as 12 newspapers were shut down. Those papers managed to survive had to cut down staff with reduced salaries. Newspapers got thinner to save papers for tomorrow’s edition. Editorial and managerial departments sat down and plan together to ensure their papers survive the economic onslaught the next day.

The crisis also introduced new owners to the Thai media world, which was dominated by a handful family and retired journalists. Politicians and vested interest groups have been able to buy into these media. With them, they also brought new editorial policies and new styles of reporting. They are more willing to blend their editorial independence to ally with powers that be. Thai journalists, well-known for its independent, were marginalized as they had to struggle to survive. During the economic boom and excess of 1990’s, journalists were very conscience of their democratic role. Now the economic survivability, for both publishers and journalists, has become the top priority.

Thaksin’s news management and spin

Like rubbing salts into the wounds, the arrival of the Thaksin government 18 months ago

completely annihilated the Thai media at the most vulnerable time. Through systematic news management, spinning and control, the government has been able to divide the Thai media community, disarming their ability to form a common critical view serving as alternative views against the government. Lack of consensus among editors and reporters allow the government and its spin team to drive the wedge further. The first six months of Thaksin’s premiership witnessed outrageous media interference, especially radios and TVs, as never before seen. At that time, Thaksin did not know that he would be acquitted from a fraudulent declaration of his asset–charge brought against him by the country’s anti-graft body. In the past year, continued pressures on owners and the withdrawal of advertising have effectively neutralized the media. These tactics constituted a virtual privatization of media repression and allowed Thaksin to argue that the government was not clamping down o the press. He has used corporate regulations, for example, to get rid of independent-mind journalists. As a result, Thaksin has been consolidating his government and potpourri coalition government, shut up critical media and opinion leaders. The government has turned watchdogs into lapdogs. It has effectively acted as a news agenda setter.

Conclusion

As Thaksin declared that he would remain in power for the next 16 years, it is imperative that the Thai media understand Thaksin’s sophisticated media strategies and catch up with his techniques of news management and spin. Otherwise, the media will serve as a propaganda tool for the government spin and pre-set agenda. More importantly, the five-year grace period of the constitution will end in October, allowing further amendments as deemed necessary by lawmakers. Once again, this opportunity permits the media to assume its proper role as it did during the drafting period through disseminating and debate. Without proactive and independent media that are ahead of the curve, it would be extremely difficult to monitor and check the government’s performance in meaningful and realistic ways.