Prachatai’s 10 years of challenges and the way forward

It is ten years since Prachatai was founded as an alternative media outlet. Born out of Thailand’s social and political turmoil in 2004, Prachatai has withstood Thailand’s colour-coded political polarization, restrictions on media freedom, and two military coups. On 30 January, many of Thailand’s leading academics and activists discussed what Prachatai has accomplished and the way forwards for Prachatai despite the unpromising future of freedom of expression in Thailand.

Joined by about 50 people, the event was held quietly without any promotion or advertisement at a hotel on busy Sukhumvit road. The media was not invited to cover the event, but some reporters came as guests. This was because it was anticipated that the military would cite martial law to force Prachatai to cancel the event, or force a change in the panellists.

Prachatai staff and people who have involved and helped Prachatai appears in the caricature, drawn by Prachatai graphic designer Wasin Pathomyok

The speakers and panellists at the event were Nidhi Eoseewong, the renowned Thai historian, Prajak Kongkirati, Thammasat University political scientist, Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher, Kingkorn Narintarakul Na Ayuthaya, Deputy Director of Biothai Foundation, Tyrell Haberkorn, political scientist from Australian National University (ANU), Pokpong Junvith, Thammasat University economist, Jon Ungpakorn, founder of Prachatai and the renowned civil society worker, Somkiet Chantarasima, the first editor of Prachatai, Sureerat Treemanka, the president of Foundation for Community Educational Media (FCEM), and Chiranuch Premchaiporn, Prachatai Director. The event was moderated by Pinpaka Ngamsom, Prachatai Editor-in-Chief.

Jon Ungpakorn, founder of Prachatai

Ten years’ accomplishments and challenges of Prachatai

Perhaps the words that can best sum up how Prachatai perceives itself as an organization is expressed in book ‘Voices of a Free Media’, written by Haberkorn from interviews with 25 Thais and 16 foreigners involved with Prachatai.  

“Prachatai is a news agency that is full of emotions and feelings that it carries a mission to serve justice in Thai society. In the past ten years, it has assumed this mission and [we] hope that Prachatai will continue to develop and go through all the challenges in Thai society with us,” said Haberkorn in the book.

Unlike the mainstream media which Nidhi said serves as a mechanism of control by the state and capitalists, Prachatai, according to the panellist discussion, has been trying to push the limits of the mainstream media to cover the under-reported issues in Thai society, such as Article 112 of the Criminal Code or the lèse majesté law and the voices of victims of the southern violence.

For many people, this assumed role of Prachatai makes it more than merely a news agency.

Kingkorn, one of the panellists, pointed out that Prachatai has assumed a double role as both an NGO and a news agency.

“Prachatai thinks of itself as a civil society organization. It wants to create a space for media free from all kind of influences,” said Kingkorn.

She added that it is good that Prachatai maintains its clear democratic stance. However, ironically, being democratic in this polarized political environment might get Prachatai criticized as being partial to a certain political viewpoint, said Kingkorn.

Prajak Kongkirati, another panellist, suggested however that Prachatai needs to be clear on its pro-democracy stance and become a platform for promoting democratic values despite the challenges under the rule of the junta.   

From left Pokopong Junvith, Sunai Phasuk,  Kingkorn Narintarakul Na Ayuthaya, and Prajak Kongkirati

“Under this special circumstance, I think the primary task of Prachatai is that it has to be more than a news agency. I think that Prachatai is not merely an alternative news outlet. It needs to be more ambitious than that. I would like it to be a space for promoting and planting democratic values until these values become deeply-rooted in Thai society. In doing this Prachatai has to pick sides,” said Prajak.

He added that currently the return to democracy is not easy, not because the Thai military is capable and intelligent but because of a culture which accepts and believes in authoritarianism. Therefore, Prachatai should become a stage for democratic ideas in opposing the authoritarian culture by promoting the quality of being patient, the use of logic to persuade people, and the principles of human rights and individuality, which are the core principles of democracy.

Agreeing with Prajak, Kingkorn pointed out that Prachatai should not only become only a ‘mourning place’ for people who believe in democracy, but it should assert itself more vigorously in discussion about the process of building democracy. Moreover, she added that Prachatai should present news about the content and quality of democracy when there is an election again.

Despite urging Prachatai to be clear on its democratic platform, Prajak, however, said that Prachatai might have to question how it could have a wider impact in society by attracting audiences from broader political and social orientations.

“Now, we might have to question the future direction of Prachatai, whether it wants to explore new ways to in order to cause a wider impact on society or not?” said Prajak.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior reporter at the Nation who attended Prachatai’s 10th anniversary as a guest, summed up the dilemma of not deviating from a pro-democratic stance and reaching out to a wider audience who might not agree with Prachatai. However, the challenge is to prove that it will not sacrifice its democratic ideals.

Another guest of the event, Isriya Paireepairit, co-founder of Siam Intelligence Unit and Blognone.com, added that besides focusing on developing the content of news reporting, Prachatai should also come up with a better business model to be able to sustain itself without funding.

“In the past, Prachatai staff might have ignored this because they think of themselves as journalists and business is not their specialty. However, Prachatai has to live and learn how to sustain itself amid the challenges, including financial ones,” said Isriya.  

He added that Prachatai should also produce more economic news which is also directly related to the society as well.

Speech by Nidhi Eoseewong: reflections on Thai media

Nidhi Eowseewong speaks about Thai media

Nidhi’s speech discussed the Propaganda Model, a concept proposed by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, which argues that mainstream media are businesses and unwittingly controlled by their funding, the state and fear or ideology.

Nidhi said the concept of ‘ideology’ well explained the Thai mainstream media’s self-censorship, especially on the lèse majesté issue. Self-censorship on this issue is not actually due to fear of the state, but due to the fear of being alienated. It is just safer and easier to follow the paradigm created by the state and their funding.

“[The media] self-censors not because of fear, but because they think they will be boycotted by their friends. They feel that they may not be able to find jobs anywhere else if it is found out that they have been digging into 112 stories,” said Nidhi. “You can see the mainstream media have rarely touched this issue.”

Prachatai was founded in June 2004 under the Foundation for Community Educational Media by Jon Ungpakorn. The news story which made Prachatai well-known was the Tak Bai Massacre in early 2006. Prachatai’s major breakthrough was its role as the only anti-coup media outlet during the 2006 coup. Prachatai English was founded in May 2007 as a volunteer-based online media after Prachatai realized that non-Thai and foreign media lacked sources to present anti-coup voices.

Prachatai currently has 18 staff including two reporters for Prachatai English and six reporters for Prachatai Thai. 

 

The celebration of Prachatai's 10th anniversary