Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Interview with Marwaan Macan-Markar, Thailand based correspondent for the IPS news agency and chairman of the FCCT

Question : There is a debate going on in Thailand about the coverage by the Foreign press of the political events. Parts of the Thai elite is accusing the Foreign press, especially the big international TV channels, of being “irresponsible” in their coverage and of being on the side of the Reds. What do you think of this debate ?

Maarwan Macan-Markar :
First of all, what i find interesting is that they only focus on the Anglo-saxon medias. The two mains broadcast outlet that they have been critical of is CNN and the BBC. In a way, it tells us that there are the kind of medias that the Thai elite watches, where they get their news from : the english language medias like the BBC and CNN, and even some english language newspapers published in Britain : Times, The Economist and others....
When you talk about foreign medias coverage in Thailand, i think it is much more broader and much more complex than that. You are from France, there are German journalists, there are Japanese journalists, I am from Sri Lanka... So I think it is dangerous to assume that all foreign journalists follow a certain line. And it is not true.

Question : Do you think that this kind of issue is also in other countries. Yourself, you are from Sri Lanka. Did it happen in Sri Lanka that, at some points, the Foreign press was accused of being on the Tamil Tigers side or on the Cinghalese side ?

Maarwan Macan-Markar : It did happen in fact. I am familiar with this kind of criticisms levelled off by certain segments of a country towards international press coverage. And Sri Lanka certainly has seen a thread that has run the course of a 25 years conflict. It came to a head last year during the final month of the government troops on the Tamil Tigers, so much so that a lot of international medias were accused of being pro-LTTE. I, myself, when I was in Sri Lanka, wrote for a newspaper called The Sunday Leader, which has been a strong voice of dissent and disagreement.
My former boss was killed last year just outside the newspaper office. So, Sri Lankan journalists have paid a heavy price for offering an alternative narrative to the government narrative.
What you see in Thailand is much more interesting. In other words, very few Thai journalists have been accused of being voices of dissent. It seems like the government is targetting the international media and how the international medias reported the anti-government Red shirts demonstrations in Thailand.

Question : There seems to be anger and bitterness from parts of the Thai upper class vis à vis the Foreign medias. Where do you think this feeling is coming from ?

Marwaan Macan-Markar :
I think, partly, it is just the problem in Thai reportage. This recent phase of the Red shirts demonstrations started gathering momentum in January this year, when there were a lot of activities happening in the North-Eastern part of Thailand, which is the heartland of the Red shirts. I, myself, made many visits to the North East since February chronicling the growing momentum of Red shirts political sentiment, following some of their meetings, doing a story on the opening of Red shirts schools.
So when it all came to a head in March when tenths of thousands of Red shirts protesters arrived in a caravan of Red to Bangkok, which was an historic occasion, I was not surprised by this. What happened is the Thai medias refused to cover the story. The Thai medias were more interested in the Bangkok view, the metropolitan view of things. There was very little coverage by Thai medias of reporters going to the provinces to understand why people are angry. I think the basic job of a journalist is to demonstrate a level of curiosity.
And if you hear that a segment of your country is expressing some anger and resentment, it is only important that you go to those places and try to understand the anger. You do not have to take sides. Understand and explain the anger. And that is what a number of Foreign journalists have been doing.
So we had followed the story coming up to March. And then, of course, since it was all in Bangkok from March to mid-May, we had a better understanding of what happened. So partly, the anger stems probably from being shocked at what was happening in their country. That was the elite's reaction.
Now, had they been exposed to the realities happening in the provinces, I think the anger would not have been as stark as what we are seing right now.

Question :
Do you think that among the Thai medias, there is a problem of self-censorship and a problem of censorship by the management ?

Maarwan Macan-Markar :
Well, I am aware that the broadcasting channels were under some pressure to toe the government line. In fact, some of the mainstream Thai TV stations, not the cable channels, admitted so. The print medias is very free in this country. I think it is very free, very vibrant. Thais can be very proud of the space for freedom of expression and it is reflected in the print medias.
But if that is the case, the question need to be asked of why one did not see the kind of vibrant coverage, critical coverage that one woud expect at such time. For instance, Thai Rath, which is the largest circulation Thai language newspaper, was very progressive, very informative, was doing a lot of stories that cut accross the Thai political spectrum, from articles that were sympathetic to the Red shirts to those that were sympathetic to the government.
There were other newspapers less so. But the general impression created in this country, leading up to this, is that there was a level of self censorship, there was a level of disguise them (i.e. demonstratrors) as nuisances or disguise as trouble makers or sometimes dismissing them as buffaloes and stupid, which is very derogatory. I think that metropolitan biases did come out.

Question : The english language daily The Nation had played a very important role in May 1992, because, when the Bangkok Post was self censoring itself, The Nation stood firm and reported the news and played an important role against the pro-military government of general Suchinda Kraprayoon. Then, after 1992, a new TV channel, ITV, was created because there was an awareness that there was a problem with the coverage by the Thai TV channels which were reporting too much the government line. Now The Nation is completely one-sided. It is tied by its ownership. And Thai PBS channel, the former ITV, is not doing a very balanced reporting. How can we explain this change from progressive standing in 1992 to conservative standing in 2010 ?

Marwaan Macan-Markar : I think it is a bit more complex than that. The Thai medias who are critical of the Red shirts and not critical enough of the government also reflects a certain animosity towards Mr Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime minister. The Nation openly admits that they suffered a lot during the five-and-a-half years term of Mr Thaksin. They felt they were persecuted. And I think the anger that emerged at the time, the hostility towards Mr Thaksin in a way shapes their coverage. Because they feel that the Red shirts are pro-Thaksin supporters and therefore they don't want to give any leeway for Mr Thaksin to come back.
About Thai PBS, it is interesting that the Red shirts demonstrators i spoke to, during the protests, gave the impression that, of the Thai broadcast medias, the one that was most fair to them was Thai PBS. At least, this channel gives their voice, their stories.
But i think, if we look at whatever bias there is in the Thai media coverage, most of it is shaped by this hostility towards Mr Thaksin, because he was no friend of free expression, he was no friend of Thailand independent press ; he applied a lot of pressure and crackdown and crushed some of these independent voices. And that resentment still bubbles under the surface. And i think that shaped the way in which the news agenda was set in covering the recent protests.

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