As troops and antigovernment protestors clashed on Bangkok’s streets again this week, a furious battle also played out in the media over casualties. Government spokespersons and army officers insisted that bullets had not been fired into the crowds. Their opponents said the opposite.
Staff at the prime minister’s office blamed Red Shirts on motorbikes for a melee with local residents that left two dead. Other sources were less certain about the identities of the protagonists, but doubtful voices were drowned out as local outlets obligingly reported the official version. Meanwhile, emailed narratives of battles around the city had it that the Red Shirts’ rivals were in some areas backing up the army, but there was no immediate evidence to support this claim either.
What all this goes to show is not which side is to blame for the street blockades and bloodshed of the last few days, but how difficult it has become to believe Thailand’s media. Since 2006, when domestic news agencies and many overseas ones fell over each other to enthuse about the army’s latest power grab, the biases of newspapers, magazines and broadcasters have become more pronounced, their coverage more partisan, and their opinion-makers seemingly more sure of themselves even as things get less certain.
In normal times, the impoverished domestic journalism which has become a hallmark of Bangkok has made following current affairs there difficult; with the city under siege and a state of emergency declared, it has made following them all but impossible.
Blinded by seething hatred of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, many journalists have transformed him from the authoritarian bully that he is into a superhuman bogeyman on whom everything and anything can be blamed.
Thaksin obviously provoked his supporters to violence this week, as he has done in the past. There is no need for the point to be made repeatedly. What is needed is to situate what has happened in a meaningful trajectory with which to make sense of it and to figure out what might occur next.
But instead of offering useful analysis, most newspaper space has been taken up with headlines jeering at the Red Shirts’ failed putsch accompanied by content-free commentary that has at best been infantile and at worst shameful.
A columnist for the Bangkok Post shrilled that Thaksin was responsible for turning the city into a war zone and for the death of a young man whose brother she heard speak on television. Does Thaksin have a soul? she cried out theatrically. The paper’s main editorial was little better, branding the former prime minister’s crimes “heinous” and heaping praise on the incumbent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power on the back of prolonged violence of the same type last year.
By the time the Post was published, the government had closed the satellite station that the protest organizers were using for increasingly vociferous broadcasts. Whether or not the shutdown can be justified, the same has not been done to the Yellow Shirts’ mouthpiece. It continues to churn out propaganda even as the leaders of last year’s Government House and airport takeovers run around on bail, while a number of their red-shirted counterparts have either been locked up or are in hiding. Perhaps the yellow-shirted bosses have not felt the need to go on the run because no one is actually chasing them.
And while the authorities have moved against their adversaries’ use of modern technology, they have also been working overtime against sources of news that might have filled some of the gaps, corrected some of the errors, and exposed some of the lies in the big media and authorized accounts.
The Prachatai website has been on the back foot since its director was hit last month with a volley of ambiguous charges over supposedly unlawful comments that readers – not the service itself – had posted. It continues to put out news and views that cannot be found elsewhere, such as a recent careful critique of the prejudiced and simplistic television coverage of the newest battles in Bangkok. But its weekly radio feature has fallen silent.
Many bloggers have been trying their best to keep abreast of things, but they can’t make up for the paucity of trustworthy periodicals and professional broadcasters. The bureaucracy has been fighting a war against them too, blocking the domestic audience from reading thousands of web pages since the start of this year alone on spurious grounds relating to the monarchy or national security.
A few foreign correspondents who have worked on and in Thailand for some years have filed informed and critical stories of what has been going on, but they are in the minority, and their reporting does not have much reach back inside the country where it would count the most.
During Thaksin’s time as prime minister, police and bureaucrats routinely harassed journalists and media advocates: searching premises, issuing warrants and making threats. He and his government rightly attracted censure for their efforts to intimidate and silence critics, and for their misuse of state agencies toward these ends.
But in Thaksin’s time there was at least a struggle for freedom of opinion and expression that extended across different parts of the media. Since 2006, it has fallen to small committed groups like Prachatai to keep that effort alive, often at considerable risk to those involved. None of the mainstream print and broadcast outlets can today be counted as defenders of the right to speak freely. This last week is proof of that.
“The first casualty when war comes,” U.S. Senator Hiriam Johnson once famously said, “is truth.” While both sides in the latest battle for Thailand’s future were arguing furiously about how many lives and limbs they had claimed, the first casualty went uncounted. Its passing is now more obvious than ever, its presence sorely missed.
Commentary on the red-shirts and what might come next:
Thailand’s democratic crisis, Tyrell Haberkorn (openDemocracy)
Thailand’s royal sub-plot, Andrew Walker & Nicholas Farrelly (Inside Story)