Thai Journalism In a Death Spiral

When Thai coup leader and self-appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attended the tenth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit on 16-17 October, anti-coup activists, both Thai and European, staged a protest against him in Milan, seeking to remind the larger public that Prayuth’s coup had disrupted democracy and violated human rights.

The protesters also sought justice for the death of Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi, who was killed during the brutal crackdown against the Red Shirts at the Rachaprasong intersection in Bangkok in 2010, when soldiers started firing wildly. Eventually 91 people were killed on both sides.

But immediately after the anti-Prayuth protest kicked off in Milan, army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said there had been no such demonstration and that the images circulated in the social media had been Photoshopped. Milan, Sansern said, was instead the scene of a strong welcome for Prayuth although in reality all leading international media outlets, such as AFP, and even local media reported the protest, part of a larger demonstration against all kinds on injustice both in Asia and Europe.

The Bangkok Post’s* premier military reporter, Wassana Nanuam, joined the military’s propaganda machine both on Facebook and Twitter, repeating exactly what Sansern had told the public – that there had been no protest and that the pictures being streamed from Milan were faked.

Wassana has emerged as of the most influential journalists in her field and rather sadly has traded her access to top figures like Prayuth and Privy Council chief Prem Tinsulanonda for not telling the truth to the public, in a daily newspaper that once was regarded as one of Asia’s best.

Nor is she alone. Although the junta has set out decisively to intimidate the press through explicit threats, far too many of the country’s top military reporters have been more than happy to ally themselves with the junta. As in other countries, reporters and journalists in Thailand work according to their specific assignments. With the military now ruling Thailand, those working the army beat are rising to eminence. Some have moved to work inside Government House, where the military elites have taken control.

This specialization in military affairs permits these reporters to get first-hand, in-depth information and to have access to key decision-makers inside the army. In so doing, they form a special relationship between reporters and military elites based on their mutual benefit. The military needs reporters and journalists to convey certain messages to the public. The reporters and journalists comply with such requests in order to maintain their close links with the army.

Wassana is chief among them, exploiting her connections with military strongmen in writing her reports, and even launching a series of books on the military. Lab Luang Prang, or Secrets, Deceptions and Disguise.

This is not the first time Wassana has helped the military manufacture propaganda. In the past, through her reports she has cheered Prayuth’s rise to power – saying in one Facebook entry that she thought Prayuth’s smile was “lovely.” She also composed a glorified biography of Prayuth, now on sale in Thai bookstores.

Wassana continued to deny that Cronaca Milano, the Milanese daily, had reported a day early that there would be an anti-Prayuth demonstration, attesting that such a move was well planned and approved by Milan municipality. Indeed, even a leading Italian politician, Marco Cappato, participated in the anti-Prayuth protest, and was interviewed by the media to give his disapproval of the Prayuth regime.

Even after the organizers of the protest in Milan issued a statement confirming that Junya’s anti-Prayuth protest was genuine, Wasana accused the leader of the anti-Prayuth protest, Junya Yimprasert, a Helsinki-based Thai dissident who has been charged with lèse-majesté, of seeking to exploit it for her own political agenda.

Wassana may personally like Prayuth. That is understandable since she may still need to retain her access to sources in the army. But to compromise her integrity by working as a mouthpiece of the military, especially in telling lies to the public, her behavior is simply unacceptable.

But sadly it is emblematic of the state of politics in Thailand and the equally sad state of the Thai media community, in which some reporters are willing to sell their souls to advance their own personal agendas.

The victims of this kind of reporting are the general public, who are not getting any kind of picture of the reality of the government that is running the country.

*Asia Sentinel originally reported that the Bangkok Post did not carry reports on the protest in Milan. We erred in editing Pavin's report. The Post did carry such reports --eds.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is in exile from Thailand, faced with a warrant for his address after having refused the junta’s summons.