Thai and foreign journalists came under fire and sustained casualties during the recent political violence in Bangkok, with two foreign cameramen killed in action. However, foreign media have come under fire of a different sort, with the Thai government and a number of Thai citizens taking issue with what they deem as one-sided coverage of recent events in the capital.
“Misperception of the foreign media regarding the current situation in Thailand” was the headline of an 8-page missive given to journalists on Saturday outlining the government’s view that the foreign media has got it wrong on 12 issues, including the use of “live ammunition,” the urban-rural divide, and the role of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the anti-government redshirt protest.
Perceived one-sided coverage by CNN, BBC and others has riled some elements in Thai political and civil society, with newspapers publishing open letters criticizing the nature of the reportage, which they deemed as pro-Redshirt. A Facebook page criticizing CNN correspondent Dan Rivers has attracted more than 8,000 members, and despite carrying some highly personalized invective against the reporter in question, has not been blocked by the Thai authorities, unlike some other websites and online reports. This is despite CNN carrying reports describing the armed elements among the protestors as “extremists,” similar to the government line, after some of the protestors refused to stand down after the rally was ended on the afternoon of May 19.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on Wednesday, Somtow Sucharitkul, a composer, author and social commentator who has written critical pieces about the international media, lamented the “ad hominem” nature of some of the attacks on some foreign reporters. Looking at the perceived misunderstanding of the Thai situation in more depth, he said he believes that Western education imparts an “archetypal way of thinking,” which focuses minds on a “narrative of the oppressed escaping tyranny.” Therefore, he believes, the foreign media were too readily taken-in by Redshirt spin about their desire for more equality in Thailand.
He was joined on the panel by Democrat Party representative Kraisak Choonhavan, Dr Sumet Jumsai, an architect, artist and social commentator, and by Pana Janviroj, who is chief operating officer of the Nation Group. All were critical of the foreign media coverage, with Kraisak lamenting the foreign media’s alleged lack of awareness of how the Redshirt “Million Man March” began on March 12, two weeks after the Thai courts seized US $1.4 billion in assets from former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who the Democrat Party-led government believes to be the financial and strategic mastermind behind the Redshirts.
Kraisak said that little or none of the Redshirt speeches focused on economic or social issues in Thailand, but on the perceived illegitimacy of the Abhisit government and the need for fresh elections.
The government maintains that the social-economic inequalities between poorer Redshirt strongholds in the northeast, on the one hand, and the relative affluence of the Bangkok-based elites and middle- classes thought to oppose the Redshirts, on the other, is not a major driver of the political stand-off, and it maintains that addressing these disparities is a key component of its reconciliation plan. It feels that foreign media simplifies these divides and that the perception thus created benefits the Redshirts.
Thailand’s own media freedom has come under scrutiny, however, leading some to wonder whether vilification of the foreign press is a deliberate attempt to discredit the foreign press in general in the eyes of Thai citizens.
Criticizing the foreign press is being seen as a diversion from the restrictions placed on some media outlets in Thailand.
At a press conference given to foreign media on Saturday, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva discussed media freedom in Thailand, after concerns were raised about the blocking of what the governmental terms “certain TV channels, community radios and websites,” which have been proscribed due to their being “used to manipulate and incite hatred among people by disseminating false or distorted information.” However, many feel that the discretionary powers granted under the State of Emergency have been over-used.
Responding to a question from the Associated Press, Abhisit said that he would take a closer look at the details of the Prachatai case, concerning a well-known Thai news and opinion website that has been blocked by the Thai government. However, Prachatai remains inaccessible, with numerous attempts to set up new web addresses countered by government censors.
German photojournalist Nick Nostitz was invited by Abhisit to give testimony to the pending independent inquiry into the recent violence in the Thai capital, after questioning the PM about the terms of engagement given to Thai troops in the days leading up to the final May 19 assault on the Redshirt stronghold in central Bangkok. However, among the items blocked by Thai online censors is an eyewitness account by Nostitz of a clash between protestors and the Thai Army at Din Daeng on May 15, in which the journalist gives an account of troops firing live rounds at unarmed protestors, in apparent breach of their terms of engagement. The New Mandala blog has since re-posted the story on a new link, which was accessible at the time of writing.
The Redshirts too stand accused of violating press freedoms and press rights. While in power, Thaksin clamped down on media freedoms. During violent Redshirt protests in April 2009, journalists were accused of bias and told that their safety could not be guaranteed. An explosive device was thrown at the ASTV cable channel, owned by media magnate and Yellowshirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul, who later narrowly survived an ambush when masked gunmen opened fire on his van.
During the 2010 Redshirt rallies, media outlets deemed hostile to the protestors were attacked during the protests, and after the protest leaders called a halt to their two-month rally as the Thai Army advanced on the main rally site, threats were issued against reporters by some of the hardline militants who fought the army.
While the full details of how two foreign journalists died covering the protests remain elusive, Italian Fabio Polenghi is thought to have been killed by army fire at protestor lines. Canadian Chandler Vandergrift was seriously injured, along with two Thai soldiers when a presumed M79 grenade, fired from behind the Redshirt lines, landed nearby on May 19 near Sarasin Junction, as the army advanced on Redshirt holdouts.
CNN, Al-Jazeera, Asia Times and numerous other media outlets have reported in detail on the armed element within the Redshirts, both during the crisis and in the days since.
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