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Minding what you say

The controversy about foreign media coverage of the Red Shirt protests has prompted the Ministry of Culture into action. In an attempt to prevent incorrect information about Thai culture from being disseminated around the world, it has developed a method of counteracting the ignorance and bias of non-Thai reporters.

In coordination with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Royal Thai Police, the Culture Ministry has drafted regulations requiring every registered foreign news agency and reporter to employ a Ministry-approved ‘Cultural Liaison Oversight Technician’.

The role of these CLOTs is to advise foreign reporters on what are the correct facts and interpretations of events in Thailand. The Ministry was quick to counter any claims that this was in fact a roundabout way of introducing a system of censorship.

‘The idea that we would censor anything is a misunderstanding of how censorship works in Thailand and is a good example of why we need CLOTs in Thailand,’ said a Ministry official who declined to be named.

‘In fact, we do not practice censorship in Thailand as Westerners understand it,’ continued the official. ‘All we do is to make sure that the correct facts are presented in line with the government’s policy of reconciliation and unity. All Thais desire unity and therefore it is in no one’s interests to present incorrect information that might disturb progress towards national harmony.’

Despite the Ministry’s reassurances, the initial experience of working with government CLOTs has not reassured foreign news agencies that the new arrangements are even practical.

One problem that perhaps the Ministry could perhaps have foreseen was that many CLOTs are not proficient in foreign languages. When they demand to see reports before they are published, the CLOTs then waste time sending them for translation into Thai.

In cases where the reports are written in what the Culture Ministry refers to as ‘minority languages’ like Spanish, no translations have yet been done because the Ministry claims there are no translators available.

One international news agency claims that their CLOT told them ‘Foreign reporters must understand that in Thai culture it is not thought important to know things about foreign countries, especially those that choose to speak difficult languages like Swiss or Canadian.’

The Ministry has now recruited a small group of translators, but there are serious doubts about the quality of their work. It is rumoured that one reporter’s copy, reading ‘a number of politicians believe the constitution is faulty and must be replaced’, was misread. The word ‘constitution’ was wrongly translated as ‘institution’. The reporter now faces lèse majesté charges.

Language is far from being the only barrier, however. A number of news agencies, aware that support for the Red Shirt movement is strongest in the North and Northeast, planned trips to these areas to report on the situation, only to have these blocked by their in-house CLOTs.

‘We were told that there is no need to go upcountry’, one reporter said. ‘According to our CLOT, people in the Northeast are not educated enough to give a coherent interview, so it would be a waste of time. He told us that Thai news agencies never see any point in leaving Bangkok so we should do the same as them. He called it following Thai culture.’

But many foreign correspondents believe that the problem is far deeper than simply throwing a logistical spanner into the news-gathering process. ‘The real idea behind this is the unquestioned and unquestionable belief that Thailand can only be understood by Thais. Some people even believe that the ability to understand certain aspects of Thai society depends on your genes. So unless you were born Thai, it is a genetic impossibility for you to understand Thai society and so you are not qualified to report on it.’

One correspondent who has reported on Thailand for many years told of being repeatedly corrected by his CLOT. ‘I showed him things written by Thais that proved I was right and he was wrong. He just said that the Thais who wrote these things were mutants and therefore not true Thais and should not be listened to.’

Attempts to override the CLOTs’ interference in their work have got nowhere. ‘I called their supervisor in the Ministry. He just told me that if I thought differently from my CLOT I must automatically be wrong. I then went to his supervisor and so on up the line. They all repeated the same thing.’

Appealing to his wide network of connections among the Thai elite, he was shocked to find how many subscribed to the idea that farangs were incapable of understanding Thailand. ‘It’s as if the majority of those Thais with the best education and the greatest privileges just think like CLOTs.’

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).

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