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Photo courtesy Sujane Kanprit

Under normal situation, covering politics and national security news is a tough, pressure-filled task.  Under Thai military junta government’s media control, which is tighter day by day, how can editors manage to cover these types of news?  What do they do when asked to withdraw news? What do they do when news sources fear to appear in documentary films?

A discussion on “Political, National Security and Investigative News Management in Current Situations”, organized by Media Inside Out on June 18, 2015, explored how editors have dealt with the situation.  Participating the discussion were Nualnoi Thammasathien, of FT Media, Southern Thailand Documentary Producer and former BBC reporter, and Sanoh Sukchareon, editor of Isranews Agency.  The discussion was moderated by Prachatai News Editor Pinpaka Ngamsom.

Pinpaka, editor of prachatai.com, goes straight to the point in the first question that after the coup, many media agencies have been ordered for summons, whether Isranews Agency, which is renowned for its investigative reports and exposing financial documents of politicians, has been summoned as it has kept on digging into politician financial accounts. 

Sanoh, editor of Isranews Agency says so far, none of reporters in his office has been ordered for summons. “However, there were mails, asking to us to withdraw the news.  What we did was only changing some words considered risky”.

Isranews is a small news agency, committed to covering investigative political news with a focus on public interests.   We have held on to our commitment. Even after the coup, we have looked into the bank accounts of many public figures, including General Preecha Chan-o-cha, PM Prayut’s own brother, he adds.

The editor stresses that Isranews has always strived to inspect state agencies’ procurements and public figures’ financial accounts using document-based evidences, which is a protective process for reporters.  We do have been sued for some procurement reports and the cases are under legal processes, he says.  

Pinpaka : Under our political polarization, media may be used as a political tool to attack the other side. Have you get information from readers who wish to attack the opposition? 

Sanoh :  Most of our information is from reporters.  For information from outsiders, we need to check in order to judge its reliability.  Under the government’s special condition with the supreme power, the Section 44 (of the Interim Constitution, which empowers the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO leader to issue any order the military deems appropriate regardless of human right implications), coming into effect, we need to work with greater caution.    

Pinpaka, then turns to Nualnoi Thammasathien asking about covering southern Thailand’s insurgency issue under the current power, whether it is likely that reporters are viewed as the opposite side of the government.

Nualnoi says since the coup, situations of information exchange in southern Thailand have become dull drastically.  “Community radio stations were closed down, like in other parts of the country.   Normally, there are only a few media that touch on political issues as most Muslim people dare not express their opinions.  This is a stark contrast to the situation prior to the coup, when people spoke on radios and wrote their blogs.”     

Deepening Fear in Deep South

Nualnoi elaborates that at the moment, villagers, community leaders and civil society sector need to see which ways the wind is blowing before talking about peace.  “People at the grass-root level who need to talk about peace seem to be in the middle of bullfighting.   Even when the government wishes have peace dialogues, the questions are how the local people can truly participate in such dialogues and whether the conditions offered can truly lead to dialogues.  Leaflets were distributed from gun holders, threatening people not to join peace dialogues otherwise they will be in trouble.”

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that media that can reach large audiences are not yet available.  And it is widely known that media people need to be very careful.  While new generations have used social media to express their views, social media are also used by anonymous users to name and shame.  Among the psychological operations are soldiers patrolling bookshops that hold public forums and alternative media persons reporting to the police that they have been raided or summoned.   A popular phrase everybody often says is “do whatever you wish” and a popular quote of the day is “our duties are to understand and give”.

On top of the fact that FT media is an outsider in the southern area, has FT Media faced greater difficulties during the coup?, the moderator asks.

It is not the matter of difficulties, Nualnoi says, many news sources who are released defendants, are fearful to open themselves to the public.  As a documentary producer with pre-production planning and high production cost, I need to be more cautious, and think more than ever to avoid problems that may arise.  It is like having to avoid spill water at a corner of a room and determine the distance so that the water cannot reach us.   

Dealing with fear of news source

Pinpaka wonders that under the special situation how both editors deal with fear of news sources.

Sanoh expresses that his Isranews Agency has got news sources about corruption and unusual wealth of politicians every day, either by phone or walk-in.  “Some wish to remain anonymous.  Whether they wish to identify themselves depends very much on our past works and performances.”  

However, he adds, protecting news sources is the most important thing.  In our case, most of the time, government officers or politicians are the one who are afraid of our news agency.  For example, we did an investigative report on the NCPO leader’s financial accounts and his family’s land sale.  The NCPO leader and prime minister did not answer our reporter’s questions in a straightforward manner, saying “It is none of your business.”  I consider that our reporter has done his duty in asking the questions and this is enough to make headlines.       

While Nualnoi views that the longer the conflicts, the more cautious people are.  “As our documentary aims to promote peace, the point is not what media would like to cover from outsiders’ perspectives.   We need to work with local people.  Both Buddhist and Muslim people in the conflict areas wish to see reconciliation.  However, most of women in the local areas are interested healing process while men, especially those who look like suspects in the eyes of state officers, wish to talk about justice.  You need to understand the local context.  You need to do loads of home works.  Importantly, the key in shooting a documentary is to give spaces to all parties involved.”  

“News” in Special Situation