Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Interview with Michaël H. Nelson on the media coverage of the Thai political Crisis (Part two)

Question : What would you say about the Thai newspapers. The Thai TV channels are closely controlled by the government or the army, but the Thai newspapers are supposed to be more free and supposed to deliver a higher quality of news. What do you think about their coverage ? Is there any newspaper which has been quite balanced about the events ?

Michael H. Nelson : First, about the newspapers, yes they are formally much freer than the TV stations. However, newspapers also have certain background and certains owners, and, in the case of The Nation newspaper for example, I was told that the owning journalist has talked about his stance towards Thaksin at an earlier stage. I was told that this Nation's executive put the alternative in the following way : he said at that point of time we have a choice between free journalists or of hating Thaksin and we have chosen to hate Thaksin. And this choice would determine how they would report in the following years.
So they simply have chosen not to follow their professional ethics but to take a political stand and become a political mouthpiece.
The Bangkok Post has always been quite conservative, they have now moved into the staunchly conservative or even right wing position. They are owned by the Central Department Store group, which is very close to the Palace ; it is an establishment newspaper. They have been extremely one-sided in their reporting. But we must also not forget... I have just mentioned these two English language newspapers, but both of them have also their Thai language newspaper. The Nation has Krungthep Turakit, a business paper, and Kom Chat Leuk, a paper for the masses ; and the Bangkok Post has Post Today newspaper, which is even more right wing than the Bangkok Post actually is. So you will not read anything nice, of course, in the Bangkok Post or The Nation about the Reds. When the Reds were on their way to come to Bangkok in March, the Bangkok Post called them “rural hordes”.
The Thai newspapers are a mixed bag : the Thai language newspapers which are not owned by an English language paper are a different lot. Many of them are on government line. Others, you mentioned Matichon... Matichon is comparatively open in its reporting, although in 2009 they also had some challenges and they lost ; they kicked out two of their journalists who had kept writing positive things about Thaksin and the Reds. So that was clearly in breach of their purported professional and neutral position towards reporting.
But since i buy Matichon everyday, i can fairly say that this is the only paper i can relatively trust, because they report fairly widely, they have a broad range of columnists, from very right wing to left wing to people in the middle. So you do get quite a lot of news and interpretations. But one must also say Matichon is an intellectual newspaper with a very limited circulation. People in Thailand take their news from TVs. Very few people read newspapers. That is the reason why the government domination and propagation of their stance by their own TVs and radios is so important. That is, as soon as people only watch ASTV of the Yellow shirts or they watch only government's channels, they have a very distorted view of the political world.
The I said Matichon is far too small in circulation, its mass-based sister publication Khao Sod has a bigger circulation, but of course it is a mass-based paper stand and they have less news about politics and more about crime and entertainment. There is one mass-circulation Thai Rath which is also more in the Red shirts political direction, which is important because Thai Rath is by far the biggest mass-circulation paper in Thailand. They react to their readership and their readership take news from what the journalists write. But as i said it is also a mass-circulation, so you would not have that much news and it is rather more limited.
But it was quite interesting, if i can say this, on the day after the 10th of April – the first crackdown of the government in Khok Wua intersection, there was a very strong contrast, an indicative contrast about reporting. The Bangkok Post had the entire front page covered by a group of soldiers carrying a wounded soldiers. So the 10th of April was only about soldiers being attacked. While Thai Rath newspaper had a front page that, at the top, had a huge picture of the turmoil. What could not see as a reader what really happened, one could only see there was chaos and turmoil, which was the situation. And beneath that picture, they had four smaller pictures ; two pictures on the left hand side showing Red shirts victims and two more pictures showing military victims. So this was a very balanced front page which was in very stark contrast to the Bangkok Post.
One more indication. Yesterday, I bought a special publication of the Nation Group's Kom Chad Leuk, the mass circulation, about the events about Rajaprasong intersection. And this is an utterly disgusting and unbelievable piece of distortion. Because in that issue, they basically have a lot of pictures about soldiers and about injured soldiers and dead soldiers. You have, as far as i can remember only one picture of injured or dead Red Shirt, one of those in the temple. You have nothing but the soldiers who are under attack, who are trying to go on the offensive. And you have a lot of pictures showing Red shirts violent or rioting. But you don't see the Red shirts as victims of the soldiers or anybody else. So, in the German context, that would be a rather neo nazi approach to propaganda. But here in Thailand, in the present circumstances, this is quite ordinary.
And this is the direction in which these publications are going. A previous publication by Naew Na newspaper, a mass-circulation as well, was titled “Red terrorists burn Bangkok”. So we can see how these events are framed in the mind of Bangkok people. The demonstrations, the protests, the political issues, completely disappear behind the violence, the rioting, etc... It is always only the Reds who are at fault.

Question : You have been studying thoroughly the Red publications, the newspapers, the magazines... I know this is a study in progress and you are very cautious to make any comments about it, but I would be interested to know what kind of historical references, either from the Thai history or the Asian history or the Western history, are these publications using.

Michael H. Nelson : You are right, i have to be very cautious because i don't know that much. I have been collecting these publications for quite some time and i have a huge pile up in my room. These journals include many three sources. One is “The Voice of Thaksin”, the second is “Truth Today” and the third is “Tbai Red News”.
Your question is a little bit academic, i would say. Simply because these publications are not directed at academics. They are directed at a mass audience who are protesters of the Red shirts movement. These people are not interested about academic debates about Asian or Thai or Western history, these people are interested in political views by their leaders. So you have their main leaders, like Veera Musikapong, Jatuporn, Nathawut, Weng, Jida, writing their columns in these papers which mostly consist of attacks against the government. You had a long serie running about the monarchy in Burma which was finally deposed. So i am not sure whether this was the hint to what might happen if the conditions would be right in Thailand.
You had at one point one publication that was “Truth Today” having the front page headline : “The New Thai State”. So i thought to compare the New Thai State to the New Politics of the Yellow shirts. And I was utterly disappointed because this article, which was on two large pages, had a very thin content. So the New Thai State that the establishment so much fears has basically two elements . First : we think that the Thai parliamentary system works ; the Yellow shirts and to a large extent the establishment say : the Thai parliamentary system does not work and therefore we don't have to accept the outcome of elections. The Red shirts say : there might be problems, but the parliamentary system essentially works and therefore everyone has to accept the outcome of elections. So that is the main difference.
The second difference is about the role of the Thai monarchy. The Red shirts, in some of the references, they have dared touching upon the monarchy, which is a daring and dangerous thing because we have lèse majesté laws in Thailand that threaten high jail sentences to everybody who, even remotely, criticized the monarchy and especially the royal family. So what they did was... they said : we are in favour of the Democracy with the King as Head of State – this is the formula used in the constitution and by the establishment as well. But then they continued by saying that they want a monarchy that is modelled along the lines of the United Kingdom or Japan. In other words, they want to reduce the monarchy to a symbolic role. Because they assume that the monarchy and the Privy Council had an important role in the coup d'Etat of 2006. So that event brought many people brought many people in upcountry area up against the monarchy, so they would like to make sure that the monarchy will not any longer, from that perspective, a political player in Thai politics. Thus the reduction to a symbolic role.
But this is precisely what the establishment can never, ever accept. Because, as one writer in this tradition said : if the Thai monarchy is ever reduced to a symbolic role, it means it has been abolished. So this is a very strong statement. And this is partly what led to accusations of the Red shirts wanting to abolish the monarchy. Mainly or partly because from the perspective of the establishment, the monarchy is an essential part of Thai identity altogether. Reducing the monarchy is a traitorous activity because it means that the nation is in great danger of disappearing altogether. The monarchy is the central piece of the Thai soul and the Thai nation from that perspective. So trying to reduce the role of the monarchy to something like what we have in the UK or Japan or other European countries, to the proponents of the traditional Thai monarchistic ideology, this is a crime, a serious crime.

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