Interview with Pravit Rojanaphruk on the day the media did not control what is right alone
Amidst the political polarization that has created deep-rooted divisions in Thai society, the mass media is one factor that has difficulty in denying any responsibility and has been asked serious questions about its role and how it has performed its duty by people who have chosen political sides. At the same time, new media has appeared and individuals’ preferences in following the news change according to their political stance and access to technology. Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior journalist at The Nation, is one mainstream journalist who has long asked questions about his own professional conduct and criticized the media culture. Prachatai talked to him on the day when every single branch of the media gave space to expressing the importance of the profession, especially the duty of the media in the run-up to an eye-catching day in Thai politics, the day of the red shirt rally on 12 March.
Interview by Pinpaka Ngamsom and Woradul Tularak
Transcribed by Jiranan Hanthamrongwit and Khim Chaisukprasert
Pinpaka: Since 26 February, the mainstream media like to play up the red shirt movement by trying to make observations about whether violence will occur. At the same time, most news focuses on violence by the movement and preventive measures by the government. I want to ask for your observations. How do you see the presentation of news by the mainstream media? Is it balanced and fair?
Pravit: On the question of balance, I think it’s been missing for a long time, since before the 19 September coup. It is well known that at the time, most of the mainstream media had a problem with Thaksin as Prime Minister. Since then, as far as I understand, about 90% of the mainstream media took the clear standpoint of not wanting Thaksin. The problem was they accepted whatever means it took to get rid of him. That was clear after the coup. Almost all the editorials legitimized the coup or at least accepted the coup as necessary for Thai society in order to deal with Thaksin. So I am not surprised that in the past few days the red shirts are preparing to hold a mass rally, which is a result of the verdict to seize the assets of Thaksin and his family. So now I think that the misunderstanding and refusal to accept the truth between the mainstream media and the red shirts is even worse than before 26 February. Neither side understands the other. The mainstream media is baffled as to why they don’t just give up now the court has given its verdict. At the same time, the mainstream media refuses to ask questions even about the problems created by the process concocted since the coup until the AEC was set up. What role does it have and how is it an important factor in making another group in society, whether red shirts or neither-red-nor-yellow or whoever, see that this has no legitimacy and has to be rejected?
Pinpaka: But at the same time, nervousness about violence now seems to be shooting higher than other issues. How do you see this? Because if you compare it with the yellow shirts before, the media almost never spoke about demonstrators using violence.
Pravit: If you look at it from a positive angle, there are concerns about whether the country will see violence. If you look at it from a negative angle, it is an attempt to set a clear target from the start that the red shirts have to create violence. So these people have no legitimacy. In the end, is it necessary to control them by bringing out the troops to suppress the demonstrators? So, from this angle, I see that it is a continuation of a blind refusal by the mainstream media.
One point I want to make is that the mainstream media does not accept that the costs after the coup in solving political problems by means of a coup were very high. Every day we see the mainstream media ask how much Thaksin enriched himself from the country but no one asks how much the country lost in capital after the coup if calculated in money. In particular, the media does not accept the fact that every day the not insubstantial group of red shirts have many questions about double standards, especially transparency and accountability of the old elite which the red shirts call the ‘amat’. If you read the red shirt press, you see that they savage the old elite and what cannot be denied is that many of the red shirts’ questions are questions that must be answered. And it’s a pity that mainstream media pretend not to see that these questions are legitimate and should be asked and are looking for answers.
Pinpaka: Why don’t they see this? Is it because of their bias or for their own vested interests?
Pravit: It’s hard to nail down one or two reasons for everyone. There are many factors. The biased attitude and hatred towards Thaksin began before the coup. At that time it has to be admitted that PM Thaksin interfered with the media before the coup. There was the attempt to buy shares in Matichon and remove Bangkok Post editors, leading to Bangkok Post staff wearing black to work. At the time, the press did not accept that there was interference, but later everybody accepted that it had happened. But this seems like loathing to the point where they would do anything to deal with someone who they hated. But in the end, everyone knew that the coup was a way of dealing with Thaksin, which most of the media – let me emphasize this – supported. On this, I challenge readers to go back and read the editorials of various newspapers after 19 Sept. You will see that almost all accepted, legitimized, or even praised the coup group. Ask if society today is calm or if there is general agreement. It is clear that in the 3, nearly 4 years since the coup, there is no calm, the country is more divided and there is unprecedented criticism of the old elite. This is a cost that I think is likely to be very high, which the mainstream media does not accept.
Pinpaka: After the coup did the atmosphere of interference lessen?
Pravit: After the coup it was clear that the military was interfering. Red shirt radio and TV stations were closed.
Even today, under a government that claims to be elected, there are some suspicious deals because the agreement to set up the Abhisit government was negotiated at the house of Gen Anupong Paojinda. Before and after 26 Feb, red shirt community radio stations have been hounded by claims that they are illegal. Interestingly they were first allowed to open the stations, then today they just say no compromise and close them. When it comes to websites, it is well known that the ICT Ministry has blocked many websites, both red shirt websites and those that question the old elite. Some may have asked questions in a way that went too far, but many asked questions and society should listen carefully how much they are informed or accurate.
Pinpaka: You have monitored the red shirt media to some extent. How much support is there among the red shirts for violence on March 14?
Pravit: The rally leaders insist that they will stick to peaceful means, but one issue that may be difficult to avoid is that when a large number of people join a demonstration, there may be a violent mood and if they happen to meet the yellow shirts, or any other colour, who challenge them, then something may happen. It is hard to guarantee that everyone will keep the peace.
What I want to criticize about the red shirts is that I think the efforts of the red shirt leadership to teach peaceful methods have been very little or almost non-existent. I interviewed Dr Weng Tojirakan 2-3 weeks ago and asked him about violence. He answered that if anything happened, the stage will announce how to avoid it there and then but what really interests me is not this direct issue but the issue of teaching that in a political struggle the best method is non-violence. For this I think you have to give information and instil non-violence. Even the yellow shirts at the beginning made many claims that they used non-violence, but failed to act that way. I said that the yellow shirts should invite Phra Paisal Visalo to give a sermon and talk about non-violence, or invite Dr Chaiwat Satha-Anand or even Acharn Eakpant from Mahidol to speak on non-violence. This is what is lacking and not just among the red shirts. I think the whole of society lacks this. Society is ready to use violence. This is something to worry about. But when it gets to this point, we have to respect the right of people to express their opinions as long as they have the intention from the outset not to use violence.
Pinpaka: The mainstream media talk a lot about this. We have a question from a red shirt, maybe to two sides, both the mainstream media and the white shirts who have called for no violence to be used. The question is about this issue of raising concerns about violence at red shirt rallies, though earlier there was not much talk about this, or even as you say, there was talk about non-violence at PAD rallies at the beginning but now this is not being discussed.
Pravit: This is no surprise because 90% of the mainstream media is very much aligned against the red shirts. What I think is a tragedy is not being able to see the feelings of many poor people who support Thaksin. So ask, hey, apart from being fed by populism and receiving money or patronage, are there any other reasons in society that make these people feel they cannot accept the old political system where the old elite has influence in the background? I think this is what is missing in questions about current political problems in Thailand. It’s no different from a seriously ill patient. Maybe an operation is needed, but you cannot even tell the doctor your symptoms. Part of asking questions about how political power is organized is linked to Privy Councillors, the Privy Council, the old elite. In fact you normally can’t talk about this because of the lèse majesté law. Because most yellow media or mainstream media don’t want to bring this into the equation, it makes the analysis of Thai politics really very peculiar, like a patient who cannot say what’s wrong or talk about needing an operation, but can just complain about the symptoms.
Pinpaka: When you say the mainstream media closes its eyes, or does not dare talk about taboo issues in Thai society, can we in that case say that the Thai mainstream media is a part of the old elite system or a supporter of the ‘amat’ in the meaning of the red shirts?
Pravit: If you take an overall view, it cannot be denied that they inevitably stand with the old elite. This is a pity because at the same time, they claim that they serve the people. That makes me think about the underground trains or sky train. In other countries they call these mass transit systems. But the point is, who is this mass in Thailand? If your salary is less than ten thousands, you can’t afford to use it every day. The underground and sky train are mass transit for the middle and upper classes only. The mainstream media is the same. Every day it claims to be the media for the masses, the servant of all of society. But in fact it concentrates on middle-class people. Unfortunately, most middle-class people are biased against people with less formal education. I say ‘formal’ because I see there is education in the school and university system and in learning from life and work, where it’s not necessary to study directly or finish university. This contempt has very deep roots and I think that the media has not done enough in trying to create understanding or taking the pulse of the feelings of villagers and the poor. How do they feel about the state of Thai society? Don’t forget that most people in Thai society are poor. The lower classes are not the middle classes. The middle class is probably no more than 30%.
Woradul: The problem of the media is that the mainstream media relies on consumers with income and purchasing power. As they say, the media relies on business. If you think the media depends on the interests of the middle class, then would reform that frees them from advertising, which relies in the middle class, help solve this problem?
Pinpaka: If the media today produces for people with consumer power, then is the case of TPBS, which says it is trying to reform the media into public media, just making public media for the middle class?
Pravit: I haven’t watched TPBS much but from what I have seen, that’s what it is. The effort to open a forum for villagers is still limited. It’s an opening through the perspective of the middle class or middle-class NGOs who look at what should be opened, and how, for the villagers. There is still no participation by the villagers in deciding what they want to see, although the TV station uses the taxes from people in the whole of the country.
Woradul: Ideas about media reform after the reform of ITV, where Thaksin was said to be the owner, take the form of freedom from vested interests, from middle-class consumers, not relying on the middle class. But what do you think of this approach to media reform?
Pravit: Because some middle-class people went to manage TPBS, it’s no different. When they bring in people who think the old way and come from the mainstream media, I would be surprised if it changed a lot. It hasn’t changed and this is a pity because TV that uses the money of people from all over the country should really reflect the interests of, and serve, the majority, and most people in Thai society are poor people upcountry.
Pinpaka: At present the mood of the Thai media has been described as polarized between yellow shirt media and red shirt media. It is fairly clear how media is consumed. Yellow shirts take yellow shirt media and red shirts take red shirt media. One easy question is ‘Are they on our side?’ From the perspective of the work of the mainstream media, does the tendency to take news in this way help people in society understand each other better? Will society be more divided, the more their understanding differs?
Pravit: It’s difficult to avoid because at present, media at the yellow pole and the red pole attack and vilify each other fairly coarsely. Both ASTV/Manager Daily and the red shirt media, Thai Red News or Voice of Thaksin, etc., berate each other pretty heavily. I’m not so surprised. If I was a yellow shirt, I wouldn’t want to read a red shirt newspaper that curses me and if I was a red shirt, I wouldn’t want to buy the Manager and get offended. This is the result of neither media side knowing moderation. It increases hatred. If possible, I would like to suggest that the red and yellow shirts read some of the other side’s media. They will see how the other side thinks and ask themselves if what they think is correct or not. But from what I can see from reality, I don’t know how this can be done.
Another thing I’m interested in and have observed over the past 2-3 months is the assumption that the red shirts are just upcountry people. We have to re-think this because I later found that the red shirts were selling their publications in bookstores on the sky train, in newspaper shops and bookstores in shopping malls like Siam Paragon, B2S in Central Chidlom or Thonglo or Lad Phrao, which really surprised me. I tried asking the salespeople which groups bought these publications. If you view the red shirts as upcountry people who take money from Thaksin, then who buys these publications? One salesperson I asked downstairs in the food court at Siam Paragon said that the buyers were ordinary people, even office workers in the Siam Paragon building, who are middle class.
That made me think that we need to ask a new question about how broad is the movement questioning the old elite. Later the red shirt media seriously targeted the old elite. I think that the question should be asked why, on important issues like this, the mainstream media are not interested in asking whether questioning the old elite is reasonable.
Pinpaka: If we compare the situation in the south, we see that the people in the 3 border provinces reject the Thai-language media and main Thai media. The mainstream media has lost credibility. Is the mood among the red shirts, the mood in current society, the same as this mood, where the main media has lost the credibility of a rather large group?
Pravit: I talked to a red shirt for an interview in The Nation less than a week ago. This was a red shirt woman, a government official in a ministry, with a degree from an Ivy League university, who took part in the stand off at Din Daeng last April. She said she doesn’t read the mainstream media. I think that mainstream media hasn’t just lost credibility, but lacks legitimacy as well. She said she read a bit but her group has its own media and she reads that. She reads articles like those under the pen-name ‘Son of the Rice Fields’. So now each side lives in their own world. This is clear.
Pinpaka: In this atmosphere, can the mainstream media get its credibility back?
Pravit: If you read in detail, you can see that some of the mainstream media, some columns or some news articles, truly try to consider things, try to find a perspective that is fair for many sides. Today I feel that there is a little hope. I have read the Daily News of Saturday 6 March. The editorial criticizes Korn Chatikavanij for tweeting that if there had been no coup, Thaksin’s money could not have been seized. “A politician in a democratic system should express a clear opinion opposing the seizure of power through a coup. This criticism is quite correct because it has to be accepted that the last coup damaged the country more than ever before, so should the coup be praised?” That was the question for Korn.
I see attempts in some articles in Matichon, Khao Sod and Thai Rath. I think that the important thing is that whether you are yellow or red, you should open more space for other views. I would still like to comment that in this respect, part of the mainstream media, as I have said, has a space for opposing views to a certain degree. The red media at present lacks this because the red media is no different from Manager Daily, and it is what I call vigilante. This is media that believes it is correct and just condemns the other side. You can still see that some of the mainstream media tries to show different views. It is a pity that Bai Tong Haeng’s column was dropped from Thai Post. This signals that some of the mainstream media has less tolerance for differing opinions. There is a person in one mainstream newspaper who complained to me that his editor told him not to write. He shouldn’t write because he has a position as senior editor in this newspaper group but has a standpoint supporting the red side and the editor told him that he ought to realize that his own media is yellow. So when you’re a senior editor you shouldn’t write anything in the newspaper.
Woradul: Desirable media in a conflict situation as at present will be media that can give differing viewpoints in the same media. Does this mean that if we read a newspaper, we have to read the entire issue before we can comment?
Pravit: No. If you read some, you will know enough. In Thai Rath, for example, you will know that there are political cartoons on two pages with different standpoints. If a person reads through, they will know the standpoints. Initially, you may have to read from front to back, but reading for a while will tell you the differences between pages or which columnists are different. I think this is important but I don’t agree with going to the extreme of closing down the yellow or red media. I just want to make the appeal that when you curse someone, you use a bit of reason. There is no need to dehumanize the other side. That should be avoided. In the end the challenge for society is media literacy. It’s not whether media is good or bad or tells us the truth, because in the end society cannot avoid the need for people to rely on themselves. They have to have sufficient maturity. Should you believe what you read or not? When you read, you should be sceptical.
Training in media literacy will teach the limitations of the media such as their links to political groups or advertisers and companies, or the fact that the media has a top-down structure and the media culture is one of seniority which goes against a democratic culture, the implications of this for the way the media works, and an examination of the work of the media, which is a big problem in Thai media circles.
Woradul: Since the political problems of the Thaksin era, intellectuals, academics and politicians see the media as having great influence. Since ITV, everything has been for media reform, such as Channel 11 NBT. PAD sees this as a problem. I want to ask if the evaluation that the media has much more influence than it really does is correct, when compared with other countries.
Pravit: I think the trend in the future will see a reduction of the power of any single media, organization, newspaper or TV channel, because people have more ways to consume media, such as the various websites, radio stations or even news by SMS. Therefore I think that we shouldn’t place too much importance in the belief that there can be one TV station that can give the opinions of all of society. People throughout society would have to be yellow, because at present the government controls most TV. So it’s clear that humans can think and question what they hear. Using media is not just blindly using one newspaper or one TV station that says Thaksin is good or Thaksin is bad. People don’t have to believe it all the time.
In the end, I don’t think this is something to worry much about. What is more worrying is that we must dissect the limitations, defects and hypocrisy of the mainstream media, and even media that is not mainstream, to see what it’s like. Society will be stronger. I think society should be able to get through any crisis.
Woradul: How are these ideas on media reform like other people’s in the past? If media reform is possible, how should it be done? For example, should it be free from business interests? Or does it depend on the individuals running the media?
Pravit: I believe in media diversity, so I don’t believe that the state or any one organization should determine that all newspapers, all TV channels and all radio stations should have the same characteristics. Otherwise it’s no different from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation telling you which day you can’t drink alcohol or what you have to eat.
As I just said, the answers should depend on as high a level of media literacy among the Thai people as possible. But there will be a dynamic relation that will adjust things. If the media are no good, they will criticize. The mainstream media these days know that they are being savaged by the red shirts every day, even being rejected. I think that it may also have occurred to some in the mainstream media to wonder what they have done, whether it is correct, how it is correct. As for anyone wanting to do any kind of media, I think this is good. I like to see diversity, like Prachatai, which I think is an important experiment that that been successful to a certain level for a fair few number of years. I’d like to see experiments with other forms of media for greater diversity. I think that Thai society should have more diversity and strength because of this diversity.