Thai newspapers seemed to be caught up in the on-going political conflict and the trust that readers and the public have in them may have been jeopardised after months, if not years, of deeply partisan and bias reporting. No incident could better illustrate the failure of most of Thai newspapers to act as a conduit for free flow of news and information than that of their failure to report a news article by the Associated Press (October 9, 2008) quoting Princess Sirindhorn's view about the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest. (Thailand princess speaks at Connecticut school, AP)
Princess Sirindhorn, during her latest visit to the United States, was asked following her talk at a prep school in Walkingford, Conn, whether she agreed with the PAD protesters who say they are "acting on behalf of the monarchy".
"I don't think so," Princess Sirindhorn's reply and quoted by AP. "They do things for themselves."
Most Thai newspapers, except for two, simply decided not to report about it.
Those failing to run the articles include Thai Rath, the kingdom's widest circulated daily, Daily News, Kom Chad Luek, Krungthep Turakij, Bangkok Post, The Nation, Post Today, Matichon and Manager Daily.
It's not a surpise that Manager Daily (or Phoo Jad Karn rai wan) which is the mouthpiece of the PAD didn't report about it. But then again, if the princess' answer went otherwise, no one should doubt that the paper would in all probability, ran the news as its biggest-ever frontpage headline.
Kudos goes to Khao Sod newspaper for being one of the only two Bangkok-based newspapers running it.
Khao Sod was careful to not just have the translated Thai version of the quote but also printed the English-version of the Princess' quote as well on page 14 of its Sunday October 12 edition. But again, Khao Sod appeared to have been rather upset about the PAD seemimgly never ending demand and protest of late, so one wonders if the paper would publish the article at all if it's still an out-and-out pro-PAD papers.
The other paper which published the AP news item is Prachatouch (again, not to be confused with prachatai.com online newspapers which also quoted AP's story). Prachatouch is the opposite of Manager Daily and yet the two are very similar in a sense that they're extreme newspapers. Prachatouch is an all out pro-Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-government papers as much as Manager Daily is an unabashed mouthpiece of the PAD. If Manager Daily is a PAD apologist then Prachatouch is equally an apologist for Thaksin and the People Power Party government. The rest tried to maintain the facade of impartiality but with varying degree of success - or failure rather.
It is most doubtful if Prachatouch would publish the news item at all if the Princess' view were pro-PAD. If that's the case, then perhaps most Thai newspapers, which are pro-PAD to greater or lesser extent, would most likely play up the item as very news worthy indeed.
While there's nothing wrong with taking side, most Thai newspapers (as well as most TV and radio) have been so deeply in bed with one side or the other that they have failed to draw a line between commentary/editorial pieces to that of straight news report.
There's nothing wrong about expressing the paper or columnist's views in the editorial or commentary articles but when many newspapers choose to screen and censor some news item that goes against their political stance, then they are depriving the public from having truly diverse views and news. It's also nothing short of disrespect to its readers.
Truly diverse views and news is needed and is especially needed in time of political crisis because society need to learn, weight, listen to differing voices in order to be able to judge things properly. The public can't judge things or learn properly without a truly free flow of news, views and information.
Virtually all Thai newspapers claimed to be for freedom of news and information but most have failed this latest litmus test. They have proven to be too partisan to be trusted. Vast majority of the Thai media continue to insist that they're fair and impartial while evidences which pointed otherwise are growing. Censorship and self-censorship exist while the media assert otherwise. Many don't really believe in genuine debate and in presenting diverse perspectives within media organisations. But again, it may well be linked to the anti-democratic structure of media corporations which justify autocratic rule by a handful of editors as the only way to do things.
The media compared itself to being a watchdog, a shining lamp of conscience showing way toward a more enlightened future or a mirror which honestly reflect the reality. But the Thai media have failed on being all three. The watchdog doesn't know who ought to be its real master, the lamp pointed only in one direction and the mirror have been distorted if not shattered by the media themselves.
The public will now have to bear in mind not to become dependent on a single news source by learning to access various news and information, from local and foreign sources, on-line and off-line. The trust have been lost as newspapers appeared to have become the latest victim of the on-going political conflict where anthing goes.
PS. The writer was told by a reliable source that a phone call was made to a big wig at a big local journalist association to tell the various papers to be especially careful about deciding whether to run the AP article or not. The man who made the phone was himself a well-known public figure married to an even more influential person with very influentail ties. Supreme PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul subsequently accused Khao Sod and Matichon newspapers group which owned Khao Sad of being patronised by Thaksin and of distorting the Princess' remark and urged PAD followers to boycott the papers.
Prachatouch newspapers tried to interview key people at the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) about Sondhi's comment by none was willing to talk about the incident.
PS. 2 This article was first made public as a note for a panel discussion entitled "Thailand in Crisis: The Thai Media's Perspective" organised by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) on October 21, 2008. The writer was a panelist in the event and spoke on a personal capacity.