Monday, June 14, 2010

Interview of Aela Callan, Thailand-based independent journalist working for Al Jazeera

Question : Parts of the Thai elite have accused the foreign medias, particularly the big international TV channels to be on the Red side. What is your comment on this ?

Aela Callan : A lot of Thai medias, and as you say particularly the elite, have levelled a lot of anger against possibly CNN and BBC the most in the wake of the Red shirts crackdown. I think that the accusations that both channels are biased in favour of the Red shirts are somewhat unfounded. When you have a look at the coverage that we spread, not only accross that week of the crackdown but also in the many months leading up to, i think both sides were represented in coverage. I think perhaps the difference is that time which was devoted to the topic : Al Jazeera, for one thing, has a lot more time devote their coverage to, because of the way that our broadcasts are set up. In every bulletin, for instance, you would see a government spokesperson and a Red shirts spokeperson.
Then coverage from our correspondents out in the field, what was happening on the ground, and then analysis from reporters and various experts as well.
Perhaps, the international broadcasts of CNN and the BBC did not have as much time to devote to the Red shirts topic. Our bulletins tend to go around the world, depending by regions, so from the Middle-East, Asia, America and Europe. So in Asian bulletins, particularly, we devoted rolling coverage and we had pretty much hours and hours of coverage on the day of the crackdown.
And before that we did comprehensive coverage what the issues were. And perhaps that is the reason why Al Jazeera has not received such intense criticism.
I also tend to think that Al Jazeera has not been tarred with the brush of the western medias. Thai are very defensive about western medias interfering or western attitudes interfering. We saw when there were suggestions that maybe the United Nations should broker some sorts of peace talks between the government and the Red shirts. That was vehemently rejected by the Thai government and, in not so many words, they were saying : we can handle our own issues. In Thailand, there is very much the sense that Westerners don't understand their issues. They don't understand the way the conflit is unfolding.
I don't buy that argument. I think western journalists, in particular those that have worked here for many years, have a very solid understanding of what the issues are. Thailand does not have a free and fair medias. Most of the television stations are state owned. And therefore, you have a situation where the Yellow shirts supporters watch Yellow shirts TV, ASTV, and the Red shirts supporters watch the Red shirts TV, P-TV. And then, you have the state run broadcasters and the military run broadcasters, such as Channel 11.
So, if they don't like the view that is being portrayed on one of those stations, they just don't watch it. To have western medias coming and present views that are perhaps different to their own, they have no concept really that this is reporting without fear or favour. These are just the facts that journalists are seeing on the ground. Then they feel that they have no recourse perhaps to complain about this. And it is not something they are necessarily used to seeing. They are used to an environment where the government can interfere in what is being broadcasted. They are used to an environment in which people just won't watch the other side's point of view.
So I think that has been something that Thailand has grappled with during this crisis, but also in previous crisis. We saw in the Songkhran riots, twelve months prior, that the same accusations of bias were levelled against various sections of the medias.
This is not to say that the medias is above criticism in any way whatsoever. We welcome that. That is part of a functioning democracy... is the role of the medias. And if anyone says your coverage is biased, they are entitled to do that.
What I think has been very destructive in the way Thailand has responded to the international medias is the singling out of certain journalists. And the Thai medias allowing letters to the editor for example to be published that say : “this journalist or that journalist should be kicked out of the country. If you see them in the street, harm them”. I think that it is incredibly dangerous, and that is something that i would hope the Thai government and the ministry of Foreign affairs are keeping a very close watch on, because not only is that damaging to those reporters involved, but that makes the situation unsafe for them here in Thailand.

Question : Did you yourself experience pressures or intimidations or strong advice about the way you should report from one or the other side ?

Aela Callan : Absolutely not. We were never contacted by any government official or Red shirts offical saying : this is how you should cover the story. What I did experience, particularly in the wake of some of the pictures we have shown of Red shirts, was a backlash, and not necessarily against myself or other correspondents, but mostly against the cameraman, which to me seems to be a very interesting reaction that the Red shirts, when they did not like what we were broadcasting in terms of showing armed members of the movement... You know, when we heard about these Black shirts, we had not necessarily seen a lot of photos or videos of them. And when we got videos of them, we broadcast it as did the other stations. And one of the accusations that has been levelled against CNN is that they did not actually aired that footage. Well, they did.
I think the reaction of them trying to hunt out the cameraman who had taken that video was, for me, quite disturbing. A because our crew works on the ground under very difficult circonstances. They, unlike the correspondents, are the ones who have their face visible to the public. So that was a concerning situation for me. I am not sure why they wanted to actually target the cameraman, but that indicated a trend towards a sort of anti-medias sentiment.
Then, on the governement's side, we also tended to experience these broad brush accusations that we have got it wrong. For example, after the crackdown, we went to a government press conference in which we were handed a dossier entitled : “misconceptions of the foreign medias” - which from the outset tends to indicate that the government did not agree with what was being said. And they wanted to point out to us what we got wrong. If this would happen in a western country such as France, or England, Australia, anywhere, there would be widespread outrage. You would have seen the medias get up and leave the press conference.
But here in Thailand, it was very much viewed that this was quite normal behavior, that is was OK for the government to tell the medias what they should have been saying. Certainly from the government's side, since then there have been a lot of moves made not to try to influence our coverage, but certainly to gain an idea of what...before something is released. A lot of PR spin is going on. And it is hardly surprising because both sides, in the wake of this conflict, are very much trying to win the hearts and minds of the Thai public. This has now become as much as a media war as it was a war being fought on the street.

Question : Do you think that the role of the foreign has been particularly important in this political crisis, because the Thai medias either censored themselves or were censored by their editor-in-chief ?

Aela Callan : Absolutely. To a huge degree, self censorship goes on in Thailand. Particularly, the role of the medias, in terms of either being a government mouthpiece or a mouthpiece of the Red shirts, depending on which station you watch... So the foreign medias, while I think we did not get it right at every instant, have been crucial in demystifying what is a very complex political situation. But also to make it accessible to the masses. In fact, given the fact that a lot of criticism have been levelled at the international medias, it does indicate one thing : Thais are looking to the international medias more for their news. And that is hardly surprising, given that when we saw the uprising on April 10th, when we saw the crackdown on May 19th, a lot of the Thai television stations in particular resorted to playing soap operas and music video clips. Anything but what was actually happening out on the streets and the killing that was unfolding.
Therefore, a lot of Thais did go particularly to the internet, to new medias forms – twitter, facebook -, but also the foreign TV stations to find out what was going on.
Also, interestingly, in Thailand, because of the strong lèse majesté laws, the fact that you are not allowed to speak openly about the monarchy, a lot of Thais, when they would meet you on the streets as you are covering this, would say : what is the real story ? What is going on that you know that we don't. So there is very much the perception that Thais know they are being censored. (...). But there is also very much the perception that the international medias should still be painting Thailand in a positive light. The Land of Smiles has a reputation to uphold. And many Thais don't like it when you are broadcasting images of the battles that are going on on the streets.
In Thailand, I never felt out on the streets that this is a situation of danger, I certainly felt hostility. And I certainly encountered people who would like to tell you their version of events. And, you know, the country just remains deeply divided. It is deeply fractured. And that is not going to heal itself quickly. Thais know this. So they know foreign media is going to be around, although because Bangkok's geography attracts a lot of free-lance journalists. A lot of people from all over the world come here. And the story is accessible. It is colorfull. It looks good on TV. It looks good on Front page of the newspapers. And, so it is going always to attract a lot of attention. Because you have the great irony that the Land of Smiles has resorted to warfare on the streets. So, it is always going to receive a lot of attention. Some of it will be good. Some of it will be bad. But I hope the way we continue to report it is balanced. And i would argue, we tried to put both sides over, we tried to simplify it for international audiences to be able to digest. Some people are not going to like that, but, you know, we will cope with that.

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