Panel discussion highlights obstacles for investigative journalists in Thailand

On 8 April, the Documentary Club and the Thai Media for Democracy Alliance (DemAll) organised a screening of the Romanian documentary Collective ahead of the film’s scheduled public screenings, as well as a panel discussion on investigative journalism and press freedom in Thailand.

The documentary poster with the message "when the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat its citizens."

Directed by Alexander Nanau, Collective revolves around a group of journalists from the Sports Gazette, a daily sports newspaper based in Bucharest, as they investigate corruption and mismanagement in the Romanian public healthcare system following the 2015 Colectiv Club fire, which killed 27 people and injured 180 others, and the death of over 30 other victims in the months after the fire due to bacterial infection and improper care for burn victims at public hospitals. The documentary also follows the then-Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu, who was appointed after the resignation of the Social Democratic government following a series of mass protests in 2015, and his attempt at reforming the public healthcare system.

Collective has been nominated at the 93rd Academy Awards for the best documentary feature and the best international feature film categories, becoming the first Romanian film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The screening was preceded by a panel discussion with The Reporters founder Thapanee Eadsrichai and Thai News Agency reporter Santiwithi Phrombut on working as investigative journalists in Thailand.

Santhiwithi said that one of the obstacles investigative journalists often face is the lack of support from editors and colleagues, as investigative work takes a lot of time and effort. He also said that he has been intimidated by those in power and his life has been in danger. He said that he has been followed to his workplace, that people have tried to find his personal contact information, and that he has faced lawsuits.

He also mentioned that the Computer Crimes Act has made the work of journalists difficult, as they risk lawsuits and intimidation if they get too close to the truth. He is also concerned that it would be even harder for journalists to work if the new Official Information bill comes into effect.

Santiwithi Phrombut

Meanwhile, Thapanee said that, even though investigative journalism is difficult by nature, she has found it more difficult since the 2014 military coup, as an undemocratic government is a major obstacle and the situation made it difficult to access information. She also shared her experience of covering the Rohingya refugee crisis and investigating reports that the Thai army is allegedly supplying rice to Myanmar troops, and said that, throughout her career as a journalist, she faced pressure from those whose interests are affected by her reporting, as well as from the state, which is another major obstacle in her work.

“Journalists are always blamed and cursed for making up stories and making trouble, but the Thai society has never thought about going back to investigate the source of the problems that are a result of the structure of the people who have power,” Thapanee said.

“Actually, journalists can do it, but we need to the society to help with the investigations, and I would like to leave you with this sentence from the film that when the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat its citizens. Yes, that is how it really is, but with the last story that I worked on [the Thai army supplying 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar troops], I saw that, whenever the people are brave enough to speak the truth, but the media is not brave enough to uncover the truth, then you shouldn’t be journalists.”

Thapanee Eadsrichai

Documentary Club founder Thida Plitpholkarnpim told Prachatai that they wanted to screen the documentary as it touches on an issue that is powerful and relatable to the Thai context, and that as the documentary focuses on corruption within the Romanian public healthcare system and those in power who exploit the system for their own benefit while patients’ lives are on the line, Thai audiences might be able to relate to the issues being shown.

For Thida, the documentary’s focus on the role of the press also shows how much effort investigative journalism takes, how reporters must take risks and must protect their sources, and the barriers they have to go through to bring a story to society and hope that it will lead to change.

“I think that investigative journalism is something that has been talked about for a while in Thailand but we don’t often see, so I felt that this is a phenomenon that I would like to bring to the attention of Thai society as well,” Thida said.

Thida said that a documentary has a role in raising questions about many aspects of society, and often, many documentaries raise questions about issues that are overlooked by society or by the mainstream media. She said that, with the Documentary Club’s film choices, she wants Thai audiences to see that systematic issues exist in every society, but it is up to them whether they will start to question these issues and start demanding changes, from the community level up to the level of state policy.

“I think that there are many documentaries that were made to show these conditions in many places all over the world, so I think that, by screening films like these, I hope that it will have this effect on Thai society as well,” said Thida.

Thida hopes that, since the documentary also focuses on the failure of the public health system and is being screened at a time where many people are beginning to raise questions about how the Thai state is handling the pandemic, the audience will be able to reflect on the situation in Thailand through what they see in the film.

“In the end, it’s true that you’re seeing a film that was made in the context of another country, but what is important is whether seeing it leads you to start asking questions and have the courage to start fighting these things that are happening in our own country, so I would like to invite people to see it and start raising questions together,” said Thida.

Collective is now screening at House Samyan on the 5th floor of Samyan Mitrtown.

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