[Thailand] Media-public forum shines a light on bleak realities of election reporting

(L-R) Mongkol Bangprapa, Thai Journalists Association; Aimpong Boonyanupongse, Thai Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); Pinpaka Ngamson, Voice TV; Pravit Rojanaphruk, Khaosod English

 

Now that the long-awaited national election in Thailand is a certainty, how does the local media fare in the public eye in terms of its coverage of important issues that are relevant to the highly anticipated political exercise?

To address this fundamental question, representatives of various local news organizations, as well as specific segments of society including academe, youth, public institutions, and non-government organizations joined a one-day forum organized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) on Thursday, 31 January 2019 in Bangkok. Together they examined the role of the media in ensuring quality public participation and during transition periods. Highlights of the day-long discussions focused on the state of media reportage in the country.

The event, dubbed “Public Forum on Election and Media Coverage in Thailand: Challenges and Opportunities for Broadening Public Discourse,” drew around 60 participants, including journalists from other parts of the region. It was held at the Rembrandt Hotel in the Thai capital.

Thailand is scheduled to hold its first national vote in more than four years since the military overthrew in 2014 the then democratically elected government following long-drawn-out street protests.

Panel speakers all agreed that the media play an important role in civil and political conversations. A number of them mentioned the “framing” function of the media, referring to how specific issues or subjects of reports are presented to the public. Instead of highlighting events or personalities, they said, the media should focus on, and dig deeper into, the significance and impact of specific issues affecting the public.

“Most of the media are not aware that by themselves, they could set the agenda. (We should) step back and (see) how we frame public awareness and understanding about (issues),” said Khaosod English columnist and senior staff writer Pravit Rojanaphruk.

There was wide consensus that Thailand has not been in a “normal” situation since the country was thrust under military rule, with consequent impacts on fundamental liberties, the clampdown on which, notably press freedom and the right to free speech, has been severe.

Thailand ranked 14oth on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Concerns around ensuring that the next election will be free, fair, and meaningful to the Thai public were expressed during the forum, alongside strong expectations that all stakeholders — particularly the media — must to step up and not be content with the “business as usual” mode of reporting.

Responding to the issues raised against the Thai media, resource speakers from the ranks of the media explained the challenges confronting them in today’s political milieu in Thailand.

Voice TV senior online editor Pinpaka Ngamson said: “For Thai media, we face certain limitations” in terms of resources as well as “ambiguous and stringent laws and regulations.”

Aimpong Boonyanupongse, editor at the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and chief of the Thai PBS Election Watch, cited the “decreasing quality” of skills of today’s reporters.

He acknowledged the need to amplify diverse voices in media reports. “We have to show different groups, beliefs, and colors,” he stressed.

Boonyanupongse added that they are aware of the need to check their actions as media practitioners, adding that expectations of Thai PBS are high, being publicly funded.

In the previous session, civil society members faulted the media for not delving into policy issues. iLaw communications officer Nutchapakorn Nammueng said that in trying avoid appearing biased, the media gave scant attention to the information needs of the public. (Read more: “[Thailand] CSOs highlight role of the media during elections”)

On tackling media independence and the perceived propensity of the media toward “neutrality,” or inability, if not hesitation, to report important issues for fear of backlash, especially from the state authorities, Rojanaphruk of Khaosod English said the media must assert their rights. “We have to protect our rights, both for the media and the people, or else we face (a situation) where we don’t have real freedom to express ourselves,” he said.

Mongkol Bangprapa, secretary-general of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and Bangkok Post senior political reporter, said it is not enough for the media to provide only “factual information.”

“We should provide all the information without any reservation…you have to dig deeper (and) provide the background,” he said in closing.

But for many in the Thai media that may be easier said than done against the slew of challenges confronting them, not least of which is the repressive environment in which they media operate today in Thailand.

Bangprapa said TJA has appealed to the National Council for Peace and Order, the military junta, “to unlock all controls on the media.”

Until this plea is heard, those controls will remain firmly in place, even in the run-up to the upcoming vote.

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