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Truth and Media Hegemony

“Can you see the moon? Can you see it seen...”
(Playwright) Gertrude Stein, A Circular Play

The lack of ethical, balanced and objective reporting by certain Bangkok-based foreign and Thai journalists1 is a continuing dilemma for the pro-democracy movement since post-2006 coup. INGOs are not much better (e.g. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and now the International Crisis Group [ICG]). Indeed ICG Update Briefing Report (No.121, 11 April 2011) entitled “Thailand: The calm before the storm” makes many errors and false assumptions that it seems to me that researchers are not keeping their ears close to the real ground.

Thus they are sure to get it wrong no matter how hard they try. ICG cites the Bangkok Post and The Nation 38 times in an 18 page report. Needless to say, impartiality is not assured in these sources. The conclusion, at pains to show impartiality, is that PAD and UDD should not obstruct each other in the forthcoming election campaign and respect the outcome. Fair enough, but no mention that the outcome twice before was not respected by the elite regime. Fact number one: it is not an even playing field to start with; so why assume this to be the case (majority, disempowered people, versus dominant minority interests?) Most of these journalists have done their bit for the establishment and time they made some overcorrection...This article is a perspective on the problem of media power in Thailand and its consumption.

Thai Media and political space

In October 29, 2009 I wrote2 in a short piece about the award winning NGO “Reporters Without Borders” (RSF), placing Thailand 130th on a Global Press Freedom Index. Reiterating some points made earlier, Thailand’s reputation in 2010 was even worse: RSF reported that last year Thailand slipped to 153rd out of 178 – continuing to head south to join the likes of Rwanda, Yemen, Syria, Burma and North Korea. It should not surprise astute social critics observing media machinations since 2005. These media interests joined with other elements of a now discredited civil society, minority political-elites and economic monopolists targeting ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist government. At the time of Thaksin’s Government, Thailand was reckoned to be in the range of 59-89 on the RSF scale. In fact this appalling finding over the last few years came from the same organisation that joined the estranged bourgeois chorus against Thaksin back then, howling about how he “harassed” the so-called “independent” media. It seems to me that, in the last few years, facts speak louder than words.

The media in Thailand have long engendered a political space for itself aligned in large part with the Democrat Party and we need to show clearly from the post-2006 coup period the personal network interests behind blatant media biases and skewed information dissemination. The Thai media, its journalists and their newspaper and tabloid bosses need to be called to account on the lack of professional ethics and continuing hegemonic political machinations aligned with the amaat. Who are the worse culprits? According to the late Sae Daeng, it was “ASTV, Manager, The Nation, The Bangkok Post, Naewna (แนวหน้า), Thai Post (ไทยโพสต์), Khom Chat Luek (คมชัดลึก)” which “instigated” the current social and political crisis.3 There is no doubt that the media as an integral element of civil society have failed Thailand. Pick up any copy of the English-language dailies and most of the Thai broadsheets from the last five years to see what I mean. Alternative media has to be accessed online as long as it can stay ahead of state censors. Dutch Journalist Michel Maas,4 shot and wounded by the army on 19 May 2010, noted astutely that “Thai media were almost all under the control of the government, including ‘independent’ newspapers The Nation and The Bangkok Post”. He noted further that reporting especially “by The Nation was nothing better than ‘anti-Reds-propaganda’”, which “made the task of international reporters much more important—and difficult”.

Then what is USAID forking out a massive USD 30 million in a long term project support for “citizen engagement”, which will see elite/civil society and the ancien regime continuing its phoney elitist notions of “directed democracy” (ประชาธิปไตยแบบมีการชี้นำ) and institution building. The US has no doubt been rewarded for its alliance with the current regime (BTW/thank you WikiLeaks!) Ji Ungpakorn wrote earlier that before the 2006 coup “Thailand had a thriving and developing democracy with freedom of expression, a relatively free press...Today, the country is creeping towards totalitarianism...”5 But current arrangements serve US interests well. Where does the US stand in regard to the “pro-democracy” movement in Thailand? Probably nowhere, despite the recent shake down in the Middle East and North Africa, it is not so willing to support democratic aspirations in Thailand (of course I cannot say here why!)

The political crisis we are all facing since 2006 has been engineered by the willing Bangkokbased media powerhouses in alliance with Democrat Party patrons. Together with elites/bureaucrats and the military, these institutions form a powerful and entrenched oligarchy of shared interests. It is like a big cake with apportioned slices decided for all – as long as the fiction is maintained and the repression intensified. Thankfully, they have in hand a magic wand 112 and a compliant judiciary: As Alice mussed in the Queen’s Croquet-Ground: “They're dreadfully fond of beheading people here; the great wonder is, that there's any one left alive!” But despite the constant taunts of “beheading” the resistance is proving to be much more determined than the regime expected a few years back.

Although the tide is ever so slightly changing, a few reports in the west exposed this circus. Foreign journalists by and large because of time pressures rely on these very same Bangkokbased elite interests to feed them information to distribute back to their networks. For instance, few international media are interested in exposing the shutting down of opposition media, censorship, corruption, and double standards; or the intimidation, fear, and murders say of five provincial red shirt leaders in the north/northeast last year.

Word Play for the press

In a play of semantics, the red shirts are commonly referred to as “anti-government” protestors (as though there were any legitimacy in an unelected “government” anyway), rather than as a “pro-democracy” movement. UDD also need to continue working hard to re-present themselves as a mass resistance movement against repressive authoritarianism; as a social movement which wants to see democracy established in Thailand. It also needs to work with individuals/groups in the west that can support them in this endeavour. UDD must reach out more responsively and effectively overseas especially as it may need to cooperate with establishing a government-in-exile if there is another coup (and the rumours are strong if the aggressive posturing of the military over last few days is anything to go by).

The Thai state and its alliance control the production of images and have a direct hand in the media “truth” representations: Is neutrality and balanced observation any longer possible? A good case of distortion and unsubstantiated jabber may be found on ASTV, or reading the white-collar media rag The Manager online: Personally, I think I’d rather listen to taxi drivers! But we need to understand how truths have been constructed around certain perceptions of reality (and indeed, whose reality? Are we free to question this?). Many Thai scholars were slow to emerge from the rabbit-hole, making pretentious claims to “neutrality” (– as if such ground even exists in Thailand at this time!) Truths, it seems, are relative, and perpetuated by institutional regimes of power: The media and its powerful backers (many in fact now carrying heavy debt) have been the main stakeholders in setting the current divisiveness in the country.

How did this divide come about? It was media hegemony and directed brainwashing (ล้างสมอง); a system of domination throughout society influencing an entire system of attitudes, values, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. The Thai media, electronic and print media, as handmaidens of the ruling elites, serve this function well. The media images and representations it sends outwards become internalized such that produced truths become the norm as the summit domination and symbolic exploitation appears as a natural ordering of social relations. It is simply just the “Thai way” (like elite notions of “economic self-sufficiency” and “self-reliance”).

Thus we should not underestimate media power to create a certain kind of everyday reality through fiction spun by an authorial voice and orchestrated by a puppet master close to the palace. Thus all readers see in this mass produced text is a certain kind of [elite] truth that is made good to consume – a seductive consumption. Alternative voices in Thailand are deleted and when noted come at a cost with likely accusations of disloyalty to the highest levels. As UDD core leaders are realising from their stage performance on 10 April 2011. But if we are going to challenge a dominant hegemony and its discursive power, alternative sites of struggle need to be nurtured. Individuals, devoid of an informational public space, are persecuted and marginalised and assume underground media tactics. Elite/middle-class readers meanwhile are convinced of a certain reality in the media text, and as like-minded subjects confirm the very legitimacy of these produced “truths”. In other words, say the same thing over and over again without alternative viewpoints being heard and people will believe. It is the intrusion of continuing false ideology and tradition and an illusion of historical progress. No wonder that Thais feel remorse, nostalgia or even melancholia as in Walter Benjamin’s reading on the Angel of History (“Angelus Novus”)6 with his (sic) face turned towards the past and as “we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet...The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Jim Taylor
Anthropology,
The University of Adelaide
19 April 2011

1 Prachatai, “Just a Lousy Journalist?” Thursday, April 21, 2011
2 http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2009/10/29/media-and-images-in-...
3 “‘Red’ Army Major General Khattiya Sawasdiphol”, (kongthap “daeng” Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol)
ThaiPost (Tuesday 8 June, 2553/2010), author trans. 16 June 2010
4 “Q&A: Dutch Journalist Michel Maas Talks to IPI about Being Shot in Thailand Clashes”, IPI, 8 July 2010,
http://www.freemedia.at/singleview/5032/
5 The Guardian Newspaper, Wednesday 18 February 2009
6 1973 (1955) “Thesis on the philosophy of history”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana/Collins, pp
259-260