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Journalism at all costs

Working on the well-known principle that it is far more important to conceal a scandal than deal with it, Gen Prayut last week threatened to summon a Channel 3 reporter.  This brave young woman had travelled to Indonesia to report on the plight of Thais who had escaped slavery on fishing boats.  Some were languishing in prison on a remote island (that the Thai media call ‘Benjina’ although that is the name of a town on Kobroor Island).  Others sadly had died and been buried there.

Gen Prayut, despite copious documentary evidence to the contrary, seems to believe that the problem of slavery aboard Thai fishing boats is unknown to the rest of the world (well, apart from the remote Indonesian island, one assumes).  And the world would continue in its ignorance, blissfully consuming the produce of the Thai ‘slave ships’, if only these overeager reporters would not persist in sabotaging the country’s good name and export earnings.

‘The media should consider the impact the news will have on the country,’ Gen Prayut is reported as saying. ‘It may cause problems, and affect national security.’  In other words, slavery is not so much as problem for national security as the reporting of it, which must be a comforting message to the slaves.

With the inexorable logic of a man who puts his first foot wrong and ploughs on regardless, Gen. Prayut warned that if Thailand’s seafood industry loses customers, ‘the people who published the news will have to be held responsible’.  Rather than the owners and operators of the boats that actually do the illegal fishing.  Or the authorities that fail to stop them.

This policy has caused some nervousness in the nation’s newsrooms as various media outlets assess the cost to the nation of their irresponsibly honest journalism.  Hence the following highly inaccurate transcript of a secret meeting of the high heidyins at the Bangkok Post this last weekend.

‘So I’ve asked Khanit to do a quick assessment of any stories in the last week that, er, may cause us difficulties if the government decides that they have affected the economy and the Post has to pay compensation any lost exports.  Khun Khanit?’

‘Well I only looked at a small sample – Monday to Friday last week.’

‘And was there anything that might cause us problems?’

‘Oh yes, every day.’

‘Every day?  Surely not.’

‘Well on Monday, we ran a story about 3 tigers that have disappeared from that tourist temple in Kanchanburi under suspicious circumstances.’

‘But we don’t export dodgy tigers, do we?’

‘Er, in fact we do.  To overseas zoos.  Or rather we’d like to if only there was proper documentation to go with them.  This kind of case, with the resident vet resigning in disgust, well, it just tars Thailand with the brush of illegal wildlife trading.’

‘But the trade in wildlife can’t add up to much.  What was in Tuesday’s paper?’

‘We ran this Thai Airways piece about khao phad bai krapao producing the highest level of greenhouse gas and ordering their catering department to reduce emissions.’

‘So goodbye to Kitchen of the World, I suppose.’

‘Not only that, it makes Thai look really dumb if it thinks a puff piece on its catering is a serious answer to climate change.  I mean, its core business involves pumping tons upon tons of GHG into the atmosphere every day.

‘Then on Wednesday we reported that police had stopped more than 40 trucks delivering oil to Myawaddy because they appeared to exceed the 25-tonne limit.  So the Karen Border Guard closed 23 border ports.’

‘The oil trade to Karen state can’t be that valuable.’

‘But every exporter in the land trucks their stuff to port.  Note that the police didn’t actually check the overloading.  The trucks just ‘appeared’ to be over the limit.  It means that they can stop anyone’s business on a whim.

‘On Thursday we ran the report of the NRC sub-committee that says there are flaws in the digital economy bills.’

‘And we ran an editorial on that.  But that’s the government’s own people.  That wouldn’t harm the national economy, would it?’

‘I dunno.  Their take is that the bills are more about snooping than computer security and they said, and I quote, ‘This may affect confidence among business operators which could harm the economy.’  Show me a digital entrepreneur who will want to invest here if that’s what government’s own appointees are saying.’

‘But that’s not our fault.  The NRC said it.’

‘And the fishing trawler slaves aren’t the fault of Channel 3 but it’s their reporter that’s earmarked for attitude adjustment.  So Friday was pesticide contamination of veggies.’

‘But it was only krapao and a couple of other insignificant crops.  The exports of those can’t add up to much.’

‘Ah, but the report makes clear that some produce with the Q mark is also contaminated.  Any prospective buyer of Thai produce now knows they can’t trust any government certification.  They can stick all the symbols they like on the stuff, but it can still poison you.’

‘Oh dear, oh dear.  So suppose we add all this lot up.  If the government says we have to pay for the damage, what’s the bottom line?’

‘Well, there are a lot of imponderables and I’ve had to make some educated guesses, but my ball park figure is about 5 times the total stock market capitalization of Post Publishing.’

‘So we’re toast.’

‘Yes, but we mustn’t tell anyone.  It would only have a negative effect on foreign investor confidence.’

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).