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One Picture is Worth a Thousand Lies

The Mass Media Photographers Association of Thailand has given its award for Best Photo of the Year to a photograph taken by Thai Rath’s crime reporter Prasith Niwesthong during the Songkran violence.

His picture captured the moment when a resident of the Din Daeng flats, incensed at the parking of a gas tanker in the street outside, grabbed a red shirt woman by the hair and dragged her along the ground.
Except that the photo was doctored.
Other photos taken of the incident (which the Mass Media Photographers Association must have felt lacked the ‘outstanding and complete’ qualities of the winner ‘in terms of photographical composition’) show clearly that the man doing the dragging has a camera and camera case hanging round his neck.
The camera and case have been photo-shopped out of the ‘complete’ award-winning picture.
Now how many Din Daeng residents, disgruntled or not, would you expect to bring their camera along to express their feelings?
But the caption was a complete fabrication in other ways.
The photo was taken not at Din Daeng, but on Ratchaprarob Road and had nothing to do with the gas tankers. But that wouldn’t have fit Thai Rath’s headlines, so in the interests of award-winning journalism, the truth, sadly, had to be sacrificed.
So if he wasn’t an angry resident, who was he? And if it wasn’t connected with the gas tankers incident, what got him so ticked off?
Thai Rath didn’t bother to find out.  Thai journalistic standards don’t seem to rank establishing the facts very highly. At least not nearly as high as a nice ‘photographical composition’ that will win a prize for your criminal reporter. I mean, crime reporter.
But the internet community did find out.
It turns out that his name is Kaweekrai Chokepatthanakasemsuk and he has a Hi5 account called ‘thaksindeathsoon’. So no prizes for guessing why he thinks violence against red shirts is an absolutely cracking idea. He happens to be a PAD guard and was interviewed by the PAD propagandists who don’t seem a jot embarrassed to have a self-confessed thug on their payroll.
Now re-touching photographs for political purposes has a long and, thanks to the Mass Media Photographers Association, obviously honourable tradition in Thailand.
On October 4 1976, students at Thammasat staged a re-enactment of the hanging of 2 anti-dictatorship protestors who had been killed by the police in Nakhon Pathom. On October 5, photos of the incident, carefully re-touched to bring out a faint resemblance of one of the actors to the Crown Prince, appeared in the Bangkok press. The right-wing went ballistic at this blatant, albeit bogus, example of lèse majesté, and on October 6, dozens of students were publicly hanged, burned and mutilated and thousands were summarily carted off to jail.
Or were they? 
Apart from eye-witness accounts (and we all know how unreliable those can be), personal testimony (obviously self-serving), and documentary evidence from the time (easily falsified), those of us who weren’t actually present at the mayhem have relied on photographs of the lynchings.
But former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who was there or thereabouts (he was one of the ballistic right-wingers), has claimed that only one student was killed and that was his own fault for being a communist.
(Incidentally, the police who murdered the two protestors, the newspaper editors who edited their copy with such careful deliberation, the mobs guilty of public atrocities, and even Samak himself, all escaped punishment. The only people who ended up in the cells that night were the ones protesting in the name of democracy. Thai justice seems to operate by much the same moral standards as the Thai press.)
Maybe all the photographs and footage that were supposedly shot at the time were doctored by the Thai media in a valiant attempt to win a professional award and the massacre of October 6, one of the landmarks of recent Thai history, was no such thing. 
I mean, who would you rather trust? The Thai press or the word of a Prime Minister?

About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).