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Death of a newspaper

Many foreigners, it seems, often cite the Thai media as being cowardly and not performing the noble job that the Fourth Estate is poetically linked with – establishing truth, fighting injustice, exposing graft, fighting for the people, etc. For Thai media critics or just people that want to read why things are so difficult for Thai media, allow me to relate a story to you…

Note that often below when I say “I” I might be referring to my Thai wife who was legally registered as the paper’s owner and editor.

Back in early 1999, I was working toward completing an MBA in information management with the International School of Information Management (ISIM) that later became Aspen University. Of course a capstone project was required, and after considerable time sweating over what to come up with here in Thailand my writing background, meager though it was called from the mists of imagination and ‘suggested’ that I start up an English language newspaper here in Nakhonratchasima (AKA Korat).

The major part of the project more or less had to do with actual market research, evaluation of viability, identifying target readers, working out a budget and ROI, and so on. But in the end, in April 1999 my wife put her signature to official state documents registering herself as the editor of the just founded Korat Post. I operated the paper for approximately seven years, both hardcopy and online, before surrendering to the fact that most local Thai players were not going to support the venture; that is, educational institutions, businesses, state enterprises and private businesses.

The year 2007, when we formally closed the lid on the coffin was for me, the end of a valiant effort and a noble one. I had felt that starting up such a local paper would give more profile to the area as well as offer some serious efforts in promoting democracy and badly-needed English skills. As it turned out, very few Thais wanted to be involved because it meant contributing without first getting something to justify participation.

The Korat Post

In April 1999 we published our first monthly edition of the Korat Post. It was black and white, eight pages, tabloid format, and contained mostly English with little Thai. For the first issue I did not seek advertising given the relative low cost of printing and wish to produce something that could be used as a marketing tool. The printer, who was to become a friend and colleague, would print no less than 1,000 copies, so that’s what we paid for.

Distribution is part and parcel of producing such a paper. Who will read it, who do you want to read it, how are they going to get their copy, and will they be interested enough to possibly place paid advertising in a paper that is new and that they have never had any experience with before? My target audience was, of course, all Thais interested in English who might want to see items about their home town or province. As we continue to experience today, most Thais are not interested in English. Strike one!

Other target audiences included local businesses and organizations with foreign connections, universities and schools, small eateries that usually had several foreigners around, hotels and state agencies. Personal relationships many of which were made possible through my publisher friend Soontorn Jungrunsee led to being able to approach a few local businesses, Thai and foreign, to deliver a pitch on why they should advertise.

Benevolence was not a welcome item, but visibility to foreign visitors, and knowing that the paper, with the ads, would be distributed to hotels, embassies, select foreign business, etc., convinced a few well known businesses to advertise, including Klang Plaza, Boonthai Machinery, the former Balu’s German restaurant, a couple of hotels and smaller night spots frequented by foreigners. With some income actually coming in, I opted for three, then four, color and we became a professional looking paper.

Unfortunately, and over an extended period, near-total disinterest on the part of local Thai academics, businesses, government agencies and private companies forced, given the paper’s mission and need to minimize expenditures, us to keep the paper as a one-man-show effort. That meant one person – I – do all the photography, layout, translation, finance tasks, delivery, bill collections, attend conferences and dig up news, edit and write. So while I was dedicated for over half a decade, eventually the burden became too much and I decided to close the paper down - much, I can assure you, to my wife’s satisfaction.

She was convinced from the start that there would be little to no local interest in such a newspaper – notwithstanding the fact that given the size and numerous activities taking place in Korat a paper would help connect Korat more professionally with foreign interests, help raise its profile, etc. None of the rational argument matter, though, because in Thailand people who get involved want something first and then they may participate. Or they want to run everything, avoid anything open and above board. Long-time residents of the kingdom will appreciate this.

Even at the time of closing, in late 2007 I believe, the paper was doing slightly better than breaking even, so financially the work could have continued. But I was a bit over 60 years old, getting tired of the endless repetition and time-consuming work that led to little growth, or no growth. As well, business was suffering and advertisers themselves went out of business or stopped placing ads. I was able to keep up with smaller ads but it was not doing my clients any good. Probably the straw that broke the camel’s back was a defamation suit brought against my wife as editor over an article we did. The abbot of a local well-known temple had been caught by police with a woman in his kuti, and we covered the story on our front page. Suddenly and furiously we were attacked as foreigners that should be run out of the country (including my Thai born wife!). Daily a local radio station host incited the public against us, and despite providing recordings to local officials demonstrating clear defamation we received little or no help.

As I said, it was more or less the last straw. As so many Thais and foreigners find out in Thailand, great injustices are done day in and day out and getting responsible and timely resolution is nearly impossible. Between getting ready for the suit, and counterfiling our own (police at this point suggested that only my wife file a counter suit of defamation, that it was not necessary for me to do so. If I knew then what I now know, I would have thanked them for the bad advice but would have insisted anyhow.) The lesson at that point was not to listen to police or even a lawyer, but do consider what both say and then make your own decision based on your interests.

Ten years after the above defamation case was filed against us, through one appeal after another on the part of the plaintiff who later became the defendant, the Thai Supreme Court finally ordered final decision and confirmed financial damages to be awarded to us. What we also did not know at the time was it was then up to us to push forward with asking the court for an enforcement document which we could then use locally to try to hunt down any assets our defamer had. More time and money consuming tasks.

Lessons Learned

1. Thai media, especially mom and pop scale media, are at the beck and call of local businesses and under total state control. Cite cowardice all you want, but it is more a matter of staying out of prison, avoiding getting shot to death or losing all your advertising revenue. The valiant independent investigative journalist that still exists in very few places in the United States iconed in Hollywood stands zero chance here in Thailand. Between wisdom, selfishness, kowtowing, vested interests and yes, corruption, the poor media have little latitude in which to operate.

2. Very few businesses in Thailand, outside of major cities like Bangkok  either want to support or are financially capable of supporting local press with ads. Reasons include conflict of interest and fear of repercussions, insufficient income to justify true advertising, Thainess-related objections to possible content that ‘sponsors’ would be supporting with advertising, expose of themselves should their own operations be improper and disclosed, fear of offending influential and powerful people or even just John Doe who might get upset and grab a gun.

3. Thai media are constrained by their political, social and culture Thainess environment, history and state politic. Despite, for example, international clamor for some modicum of protection for human rights, freedom, liberty, and so on little will actually be done because the national ethic dictates that above all what has become Thainess is far more important than reasonable response to foreign, or even local, protests. So when especially foreigners who may be long-time residents or observers of Thailand raise Hell and say that such and such a media outlet is cowardly or hiding, I caution them to consider reality for a moment. When elderly bridge players can be arrested in a resort town and fined for being part of a secret society, when even truthful exposes backed with undeniable facts are responded to with counter claims of defamation on a regular basis…this should tell us that something is seriously amiss. In a way many of us know there is, but we fail to appreciate its depth and scope. It is easy to call media cowardly, but walking in the shoes of Thai media for a while will open up eyes in a way that perhaps have never seen what reality is.

4. From some of the ramifications of the 2014 coup and indeed secret and public machinations by the state even after the 2006 coup, the reality above of which we speak should become clear – that Thailand is in the grip of an iron fist that will settle for nothing less than compliance, silence, conformity, adulation, agreement, emulation and whatever else it takes to make life continue for the man and woman on the street. Whether people care or not is often irrelevant: let them care, let them not care! “We are Thai, this is Thailand, and ‘real’ Thais will adhere to Thainess because that is what being Thai means.

5. For those of us with very personal attachments to Thailand, land and home, love and children and grandchildren, businesses and colleagues, etc., the future in terms of legitimate life as a human being seems to be dark. Freedom, self-empowerment, justice, protection from fear, choice, liberty, openness and transparency…these time-honored badges of human decency are, for the time being, set aside in what is said to be an effort to steer a ship back on course. More will die, more will suffer, more will lose hope and fall into despair. Feudal times are not always a thing of the past.

 

R.I.P.  

 

About the author: Frank G Anderson is the founder of the Korat Post, the first local English language newspaper from Isaan. It ceased hardcopy publication in 2007, but still operates online. Frank is a volunteer US Embassy warden for Korat and is American Citizens Abroad Country Information Manager. He can be contacted via Facebook.