Some Observations on Mass Media and Freedom of Expression in Thailand
In today’s Thailand, many Thais see one-sided positive-only information about the monarchy and Thai mainstream mass media self-censorship as well as censorship on anything mildly critical of the monarchy as something ‘normal’. Little if any fuzz was made by pro-Thaksin mass media when a film mocking and criticizing Thaksin Shinawatra, entitled ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, was banned for good by the Film Board.
Little complaints were made when well-known writer and TV host Kamphaga was told by Voice TV to stop criticizing Buddhism after the TV station came under pressure from a red-shirt Buddhist group.
When the London-based The Economist Magazine decided not to sell its recent weekly magazine (again) in Thailand for fear of violating the draconian lese majeste law, people accept it as the order of the day.
What to do with the prevailing and limited freedom of expression in Thailand then?
While most in Thai mainstream mass media are doing their best to ensure that the public accept censorship and self-censorship as something ‘normal’, it falls upon alternative media as committed journalists, and others, to point out that there’s nothing ‘normal’ about it.
Those who still see censorship, self-censorship and one-sided positive-only information about the monarchy as a problem must ensure that society is cajoled from the state of sedation and point out to the negative repercussion the prevailing situation has for democracy and the state of freedom of expression.
It falls upon alternative media and concerned journalists as well as individuals to try to de-monopolize the agenda-setting hegemonic power of the mainstream mass media. Failing to do so, elites of various political factions, famous personalities will continue to unfairly dominate news headlines and socio-political and economic agendas.
The goal is to ensure that no single media-group can or should dominate news headlines or set social agenda any longer. In a way bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users and on-line alternative media are already undermining the hegemonic power of the mainstream mass media, but a vast majority of Thais still have no access to the internet.
Continued decentralization of media power will help foster democracy and freedom of expression as well. Defending and advancing freedom of expression is vital. Media professionals who do not recognize the value of freedom of expression might seriously consider working in the PR industry or with state’s propaganda agencies instead.
Freedom of expression cannot blossom without tolerance for diverse view and opinion, however. Thai society will have to debunk the belief that differing view is something innately negative that results in conflicts. Instead, it must try to recognize the intrinsic value of open debate and disagreement in democratic society.
Press freedom and freedom of expression will not serve society at large if only powerful and famous figures always dominate news headlines and are regularly interviewed while marginalized people have little or no space to express themselves about what they think through the mass media. It is imperative for the mass media, especially alternative media to try to introduce to the public new voices, especially from underprivileged and marginalized groups and act as an amplifier for these people to have greater voice and dialogue with the rest of society.
Alternative media, or media committed to fostering democracy must avoid the pitfall of being too cozy with any public figures, no matter how progressive or liberal these people may seem to be. Media should stick with democratic principles rather than democratic figures, because human beings are subjected to change and a progressive activist three decades ago may today be part of the oppressive ruling class.
One of the often mistaken notions in society is the belief that media impartiality means journalists should not choose or take side between democracy and dictatorship. That is not impartiality but a mere lack of will to take a stance. While journalists must not intentionally distort views of others, including conservative forces, and must ensure space for these views as well, it doesn’t mean they should find both democracy and dictatorship equally valid in order to be seen as ‘impartial’. This is no impartiality but the abandonment of responsibility to create a more just and equitable society.
In the end, however, a truly democratic media must subject itself to public scrutiny and even question the validity of the notion of democracy and freedom of expression as well. Media organization has no moral right to scrutinize others if its organization is not willing to be openly subject to scrutiny, criticism and made it-self transparent and accountable to society.
In the end, there is no room for dogmatism if society is to be in a perpetual state of learning, introspection and freedom. A big doze of doubt on all ideologies and institutions are always useful and healthy.
All these cannot be realized if media professionals think of their work as just another job. The task of progressive media in fostering freedom of expression is more than just another job but a calling.