Bangkok blames the international media

Wednesday 25 August 2010, 13:01

Alastair Leithead Alastair Leithead

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The dust has settled in Bangkok after weeks of protest and a violent crackdown in May that left 91 dead and hundreds injured.

But the anger is still simmering below the surface, with plenty of criticism of international media coverage on newspaper letters pages and ex-pat discussion boards.

I can tell you, there was a lot of anger out there. I suffered my first 'death Tweet' when someone half-heartedly threatened to "burn down the BBC" the next time they were in London.

Red-shirt protestors in Bangkok.
The red-shirts will be back for the next phase of what was something between a class struggle and a not quite clear-cut case of political manipulation.

The poorer masses' folk hero and far-from-democrat Thaksin Shinawatra still rattles the bars from his self-imposed exile outside Thailand, avoiding jail for a corruption conviction.

Many people are still angry and still energised by what he did for them and what he promises to do.

They aren't all dirt poor, but the core red-shirt supporters see the lives of the rich elite in Bangkok and wonder why they don't get more of a fair share.
Despite the government's efforts towards reconciliation, there is deep division and a sense it cannot do anything right, however healthy the economy may strangely be.

Media reform is the focus of a committee set up in the aftermath of the fighting of 19 May. I asked the prime minister's spokesman why he felt the work the government is actually doing towards targeting the poor is not making an impact, and the answer was a little scary.

"That's exactly why we need media reform," he said.

Thailand suffers from self-censorship, primarily because of the lese majeste laws which prevent open criticism of the king or the royal family. I can't go into too much detail as I live in Bangkok and the closed world of lese majeste investigations can result in 15-year jail terms.

The king is said to be above politics - not involved in these matters - but his recent poor health has prompted questions as to where the country is going next.

Thailand also suffers from real censorship. Tens of thousands of web pages have been blocked; a special unit has been expanded to cope with the monitoring. And much opposition media has been banned across the board and labelled "hate speech".

Some community radio stations are guilty of 'hate speech', but a blanket ban risks starving the angry of a vent for their point of view and inflaming the very situation the government is trying to contain.

Yellow-shirt protestors and police in Bangkok.
The continued State of Emergency in Bangkok and other provinces, and jailing of red-shirt leaders, also forces the voices of criticism underground. 

Thailand is especially polarised at the moment - even we foreign correspondents, as outsiders, are labelled 'red' or 'yellow' - the colour of the red's royalist, mass-protesting rivals.

The foreign media has been pilloried in the English-language press, often by ex-pats rather than Thais. CNN took a lot more criticism than the BBC; very little of it specific or justified. Social media, especially Twitter, saw a frenzy of anti-media sentiment which at one point verged on a witch hunt.

The biggest criticism was that we were not covering the crisis deeply enough - that, by missing out key details, our coverage was biased. We were also wrongly accused of things by people who were clearly not watching our output, which then became 'facts' in the Twittersphere.

If you've got this far in my blog post, you've done well - that stuff at the top about Thaksin and who the red-shirts are and what they want is hard to get your head around. And it's even harder to explain in the 20 seconds you might be able to set aside for background context in a tight Ten O'Clock News piece.

I even Tweeted a challenge for people to send - in one Tweet - a summary of the background to the Thailand crisis ... and then to try to do it again for people who had never been to the country.

I received some interesting answers and it went some way to helping explain what the BBC's job is in Thailand. It is not a national TV channel. But in the absence of unbiased Thai journalism - particularly on 19 May when the violent events in the heart of Bangkok were not allowed to be shown live - people looked to the international channels for news.

They were then disappointed not to be getting the in-depth analysis they hoped for, and, perhaps more importantly, not getting the analysis which fell in line with their point of view.

The daily Nation newspaper published complaint letters day after day - some of them reprints of the same letters written by the same people.

On one occasion, I tried to confront the critics in an open discussion panel at a university on media freedom. My comment "I struggle every day to ensure I stick to the BBC's principles of balance, fairness and accuracy" was even misquoted as "the BBC admitted it struggled to be balanced, fair or accurate".

The dust may have settled for now, but the problems in Thailand have not been solved. They will be back, and perhaps worse than before. The media will again be attacked from all sides.

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    Comment number 1.

    Dear Mr. Leithead,

    your article points out some problems that were and still are characteristic in this debate over the foreign media in Thailand.

    First, I saw little differentiation in the criticisms against the foreign media. It appeared to me that all foreign media were just one big anti-Thai conspiracy paid by the ultimate evil in form of toppled PM Thaksin Shinawatra himself. Many think that the anti-government red shirts (or formally United Front against Dictatorship and for Democracy, UDD) are just a bunch of paid, stupid peasants that are lured by Thaksin and desperately need be reeducated.

    The Nation, the English-language newspaper you were mentioning, was one of the fiercest critics of Thaksin and were massively in favor of the PAD (the yellow) protests. Ever since they have been overly critical of the red shirts movement as most of the editors (especially the senior ones) can't see them as anything else but a paid mob by Thaksin - an editorial line, they repeat over and over again. It is astonishing to see that an once progressive medium, that prides itself to be written by Thais for Thais, went completely overboard with lacking profund journalistic standards (which is generally low in Thailand) and just ad hominem attacks.

    Another problem is that nearly all Thai media outlets are based in Bangkok and hardly anyone of them ventures out of the capital. There were more foreign reporters that have actually went out to the rural North and North-East to actually talk with the red shirts. Only then you would see that what actually their different problems are and what their different motives they have instead of just picturing a blind, angry rural mob.

    This problem also reflects on many Bangkokians themselves, Thai and ex-pats alike. Over the course of the protests that lasted over months that began in the old town of Bangkok it was seen by many in the capital as just another flash in the pan and that it would run out of steam quickly. At first it also appeared to be that way until the red shirts shifted their protest site to the commercial and real heart of Bangkok, Rajaprasong Intersection. Then it was a real inconvenience for many, then suddenly it was a real threat when they began to build bamboo barricades, because it is regarded that the red shirts are besieging their city and since they're viewed as peasants, they have no right to. It was a psychological siege of Bangkok as well.

    Especially during the last days of the protests, which spiraled into deadly street battles with the military many had to stay at home and had to witness the city yet again crumble a little bit more. And worse, they decried that the foreign media might have overlooked that the red shirts had firearms too and were shooting back at the soldiers. While most of the protesters were only armed with molotovs and slingshots or whatever else they could get to throw, there were undoubtedly armed groups. But then again, the reporters, who were in the crossfire risking their lives, could only report what they could see - a circumstance that just couldn't be accepted by the critics who lack any empathy to those who were in that situation. You can't excuse at times just simply ugly attacks by Thais and ex-pats alike against the foreign media. CNN's Dan Rivers had to endure most attacks as he became synonymous as the whole foreign media in Thailand.
    When a young Thai lady posted a lengthy open letter against CNN's coverage on Facebook it was forwarded, retweeted etc. rapidly and cherished, applauded, celebrated as a patriotic act of defiance against the evil foreigners. The problem though is, the arguments in the letter had many factual mistakes and misses the point. That doesn't stop many though from hyping her and her letter (I bet many of them haven't actually read it) and it was reprinted in The Nation in which she immediately became (and still is) the newsroom's darling - only because her letter serves the editorial line and by that they can easily distract from their own massive editorial failures!

    This also reflects the problem of the topic itself. I cannot imagine to explain the cause, the events and the protagonists of the whole political crisis without ending up giving an 1 hour lecture. And of course it is not attractive enough to sell a story consisting of just face-less political intrigue. So some news outlet tend to tell a more attractive story: a people's revolt against the government. You always tend to make the protesters the underdogs and the military the opponent. The danger to romanticize the red shirt movement is very high and many fell for it. Of course, in any conflict there's a fight over the perceptions of the fractions. A real war over the monopoly of perception has emerged.
    As to categorize this conflict, it opens up another potential pitfall. You cannot say that it is exclusively a class fight, even though huge social and political disparities exist. You cannot say that it is exclusively a proxy war between two power-hungry fractions as the movements are now an independent power you can't get rid of. And you cannot say that that the movement is exclusively made up of this or that demographic as both movements are much more diverse as one thinks is (and is ready to accept).

    All in all, 100 days after the bloodly end of the protests, there's hardly any sign of progress in the so-called 'road to reconciliation'. With the emergency decree still in place in Bangkok and some parts of Thailand, it is easy to silence any opposition. But partly a self-bred nationalistic rage has emerged by the same critics as well, especially online. Similar to the Chinese web mob, they see it as a patriotic duty to defend their perception of the country on the web and don't allow anything they don't agree on - as a Thai blogger myself, I had got some of it as well.

    Also, it is easy to discredit critical foreigners by stating the simple fact that they're not Thai and cannot possibly understand anything, even though many of them know more than the average Thai - if you can't discredit the message, discredit the messenger! There's little willingness to actually look at the facts and instead people retort to the usual, if not more solidified prejudice. The mood has radicalized on both sides and with way too much emotion and way too little rational discussion, this conflict is unlikely to resolve equally and peaceful.
    I could go on and on for this, but I promised this would not turn out into a lecture! ;)


    Saksith Saiyasombut

    P.S.: I apologize for the length!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Dear Alastair,

    Just want to address the below point as briefly as possible:

    "The foreign media has been pilloried in the English-language press, often by ex-pats rather than Thais. CNN took a lot more criticism than the BBC; very little of it specific or justified."

    If a large number of the expat community are of a similar opinion, perhaps they have a point? Here are two main areas the circles of expats I socialize with believe the coverage fell short:

    1. The aggressive nature of the rallies. We're at a loss as to why no translations of the speeches by the leaders given below that "peaceful protesters" banner were broadcast, specifically by the likes of Arisman and Kwanchai, as they'd quickly make a mockery of the so-called "peaceful" claim. Arisman was well known for comments such as "we'll need to flex our muscles again" (said after the clash of Vipawade), or "this time we'll be ready for them" (said before the fatal explosions at the Silom pro-govt protests). Translations of the speeches would also reveal how much the red shirts were dependent on distributing misinformation to their supporters, such as claims the all clips CRES shown from YouTube of the April 10th clashes were doctored.

    2. Some pretty significant events regarding Thaksin's corruption and resulting court action. The final judgment which preceded the rallies by just a few weeks didn't get a single mention on your "Red Rage" documentary, yet we believe if the judges ruled in favour of Thaksin the rallies either wouldn't of occurred, or at least be on a much more limited scale. The events which preceded the coup back in 2006 also have lately received questionable coverage, specifically the fattening of and sale of AIS which then fuelled the original PAD rallies. From what I recall it was the growth of these rallies and the rumours of action about to be taken by Thaksin’s supporters to counter them (which seem even more believable now – refer to Baker’s Thaksin) which triggered the coup, and not the complete whitewash of “the army were getting jealous of Thaksin’s following” heard on several so-called reputable international media outlets, but admittedly can’t recall hearing it on the BBC.

    I could easily go on but would like to see if there’s any comment from you about the BBC’s stand on the above two points first as we believe they match your “specific or justified” criteria.

    Thank you,


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