Bangkok: International Media under Fire

Although nearly a month has passed since the Thai government forcefully ended the Bangkok protests by the Red Shirt followers of deposed Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the conflict persists. Now the Thai authorities and segments of Thai society have opened up a new flank. They are on a collision course with the foreign media.

The elite, like the foreign media, is a diverse group. But a few patterns can be discerned in this latest battle cry, which is dominating the discourse among Bankok's urban middle class. First, they allege, the foreign media was negligent in reporting on the so-called Men in Black who appeared to be responsible for a major share of the Red Shirts' violence, thereby rendering the movement anything but peaceful. Worse, the foreign media – Red romantics who sympathize with the underdogs or the powerless – were complicit in the violence that ensued through negligent coverage that favored the Red Shirts.

Second, the critics say, the foreign media, specifically large television networks with an international reach such as CNN and BBC, report conflicts through western eyes, fitting this particular one into a standard third world archetype: A military-backed government using force on unarmed demonstrators. The western reporting, they say, also ignores cultural differences. Put another way, the foreign media do not understand Thailand.

To a press participant in the two month-long crisis that ended with the expulsion of the Red Shirts, however, the media coverage was as fair as it could be under the difficult and life-threatening conditions in which many reporters operated. In-depth coverage was a luxury under deadline and budgetary pressures.

CNN and the BBC are easy public targets given their global impact, especially during a crisis or with breaking news that may portray the unpleasant side of a semi-open or controlled society. The outcry is therefore not unusual. What was unusual, however, is the vitriol hurled at certain media outlets or specific reporters.

"Dan Rivers of CNN was the most vilified during the recent crackdown by a section of the Thai public who expressed their anger in social networking sites, newspapers and on Thai television," said Marwaan Macan-Markar, President of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT).

The club and its correspondents were excoriated when the FCCT recently organized a series of talks and photo exhibitions of the unrest. At one particularly raucous session packed with trendy "Facebook" Thais as well as long-time foreign residents, Sumet Jumsai, a leading Thai architect and social commentator and one of four key speakers invited to discuss the foreign media's reporting, described them as "intellectually bankrupt," of presenting a caricature as hacks who can be found along Bangkok's saucy Soi Cowboy, lacking both taste and curiosity.

If the foreign media lacked taste, then the Red Shirts, according to Sumet, were worse than the Nazis. Some 200 Red Shirts stormed Chulalongkorn Hospital on April 29, a critical turning point in the conflict. The hospital was forced to evacuate its patients, paving the way for the government to wage its decisive onslaught against the protestors.

"Babies were being carried out of the ICU (intensive care unit). Even in a full-blown war situation, you don't do that. I don't think the Nazis would even do that," said Sumet, who then went on to ask whether it was worth negotiating with "barbarians." Sumet was promptly jeered.

Another controversial speaker, this time from the audience, Ze Ze Na Pombejra, a feisty Thai lawyer who petitioned against CNN on Facebook, pointedly asked reporters in the room why they have a code of ethics when they don't plan to adhere to it. In her "Open Letter to CNN International", Ze Ze's grievances ranged from what she called sensational reporting to the media's lack of reliable sources. But it was the perception that the foreign media were pro-Red that rankled the most. In the petition, she implored CNN to reverse the injustice by reassigning field correspondents to Thailand if necessary.

"I'm young. I have a right to be idealistic. I have the right to ask you guys to do a good job and if you guys don't do a good job, I think I have the right to complain," she argued.

CNN's Rivers, who was on assignment in Bangladesh during the talk, issued a brief statement that systematically addressed all the specific complaints. Calling the charge that CNN was pro-Red, for instance, "unfair", Rivers stated that on the day of the May 19 crackdown, CNN carried seven interviews with government officials.

It is not clear if Rivers will be re-assigned or whether the environment is conducive for him to continue operating in Thailand unhindered given the strength of the campaigns against him and his network. Rivers was not available for comment for this article. A former BBC correspondent, Jonathan Head, who was charged with lèse-majesté was cleared of the indictment only after he left the country for another foreign posting.

The director of the Thai Media Policy Center, Pirongrong Ramasoota, put the Thai reaction down to a lingering sense of frustration with foreign reporters who she said fail to grasp the complexity of the so-called Yellow-Red conflict or the urban-rural divide. "There wasn't a complete lay-out of the Red Shirts or how the conflict has evolved," Pirongrong said.

"There were ‘October people' in the Red Shirt movement. The core leaders were involved in the 14th October 1973 and the 6th October 1976 student pro-democracy uprisings. If the media had talked to enough people, they would have been able to go beyond the western formula. The foreign media, unlike the Thai media, don't have a stake in the conflict and should be fairer," she added while acknowledging that some Thais are going overboard, and they don't want the Red Shirts to be on TV at all. Pirongrong also noted that the Thai media knew of the existence of the Men in Black long before the foreign media began reporting about them.

The Black Shirts were an organized armed unit that is accused by the government of being behind a wave of grenade and other attacks. They also exchanged fire with the army during a clash on April 10, killing six officers and injuring 230 soldiers, 90 of them seriously. Nobody knows if the Black Shirts were an invisible third hand in the conflict or if they were embedded with renegade officer Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as Seh Daeng. Seh Daeng, or Commander Red, was taken out by a sniper while being interviewed by the foreign media on May 13, triggering the army's final showdown with the Red Shirts.

"A lot of journalists were seeking to interview this guy (Seh Daeng). He's one of the best known gangsters around. There are about 2,000 generals in Thailand. He's one of them. The sad thing is that nobody admits that Seh Daeng was part of the Red Shirts, not even the Red Shirts. He represented the most violent part of this demonstration," said Kraisak Choonhaven, the deputy chairman of the ruling Democrat Party, a prominent politician and another speaker at the media talk. Kraisak argued it was inexcusable for the foreign media not to know that both he and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva were physically assaulted by the Red Shirts in their time in office.

Marwan of the FCCT however insists the criticisms are being driven by anger and emotion and not by fact or reason. "It was a fast-moving story. The media presented a broad flavor of what happened. In any conflict, it takes a while for the truth to emerge. And how can you say there were Men In Black unless you saw them? There were security guards, some of whom were overweight in black uniforms, and they were involved in crowd control and protecting the Red leadership. Al Jazeera witnessed a man in black with a pistol and it was shown. To go with allegations without concrete proof is a problem," said Marwan.

Marwan noted that the April 10 clash with the army quickly lifted the veil of innocence of the Red movement but he also implied that the government's assertion of a violent battalion of about 400 Men In Black could be overblown, given that only two soldiers died during the May 19 climax. As for Seh Daeng, "he was more of a buffoon than a militant, a drama queen. He would say outrageous stuff. It is possible that he was nasty. It is a fair criticism but to say we ignored the violence is a bit farfetched. There's no way the Red Shirts can claim to be non-violent," Marwan added.

That is a view shared by Reuters news agency's bureau chief Jason Szep.

"As soon as the (men in black) appeared, we were not at all shy about reporting that. We and a lot of the media were consistently reporting about factions in the military that split, and especially after the Red Shirt (movement) turned violent in April," said Szep.

Media analysts agree the paucity of investigative journalism is due to constraints such as the lèse-majesté laws and the intimidating political environment of witch hunts and counter attacks. Consider these facts:

  • Seasoned war correspondents report that bullets were flying in all directions during the crisis, making it hard for them to know where to stand; the clashes that occurred beyond the Ratchaprasong epicenter were far worse than the media projected them to be despite the small death toll;

  • Some parties sought to internationalize the conflict by targeting foreign correspondents. The Committee to Protect Journalists recorded that seven foreign and local journalists were shot or injured on top of two foreign correspondents who were killed while covering the story. Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi was shot in the abdomen and killed even though he wore protective gear;

  • Reuters News Agency, for instance, operated from five hotels between May 14 and 19 because violence erupted in several areas or the power was cut. Its bureau is located opposite of a main Red Shirt encampment and next to the Dusit Thani Hotel, which momentarily became a launching pad for the urban guerilla warfare;

  • The FCCT received a formal complaint by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand who called on reporters to be fair, accurate and balanced. It stated in its letter that one-sided reporting could wrongly impact potential foreign direct investment to Thailand;

  • The Abhisit government circulated an eight page document to reporters post-conflict titled: misperception of foreign media regarding the current situation in Thailand;

  • The city's Human Rights hotline center reports that they received calls about at least 100 people who went missing during the war. Hundreds of others have been arrested without charge under the government's sweeping emergency laws.

The foreign media in Thailand is so mixed that critics, according to FCCT's Marwan, have seized on an "Anglo-Saxon version" of events. (It is noteworthy that the FCCT's session with Bangkok's Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra the night before the media talk did not attract as many locals who had the chance to question their representative about the takeover and collapse of their city and didn't bother.)

Whether Thailand fits a "Third World" narrative and whether foreign reporters can penetrate the opacity of Thai politics and culture are clearly red herrings to what appears to be at the heart of the media storm: clashing nationalisms.

Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy once observed that traditionally when countries succeed, nationalist sentiment rises. To Kishore, the media puzzle boils down to the dominance of the western press even in an age of information revolution: "You may think what you read in the western media reflects global opinion but it reflects the point of view of 12 per cent of the world's population who live in the west. And 88 per cent of the world's population lives outside the west. And the 88 per cent is developing a different point of view which is not captured in the current global media, and that major distortion has to be addressed."