It is 39 years on after the October 6, 1976 Student Uprising. Thai media and political conflicts have always intrinsically intertwined.
To commemorate the 1976 October incident, Media Inside Out invited Prof. Thongchai Winichakul, of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and senior reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk, to share their experiences and comments on media roles in times of conflict in the past and up until now. Prof. Thongchai Winichakul was then a key student activist and his latest book was “6 ตุลา ลืมไม่ได้ จำไม่ลง” (October 6: Unforgettable, Unrememberable). Pravit Rojanaphruk is a fierce critic of the Thai junta government and former senior reporter at The Nation, who was asked to quit the job after his second detention by the National Council for Peace Order (NCPO). Held at the MIO Office on October 9, 2015, the discussion was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak.
Media were remembered as culprits in the 1976 incident, notes Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak. “Ajarn Thongchai, what is your view about roles of Thai media in the past and during the recent decade?”
“Media have been among the “culprits”, rather than “mediators””, says Prof. Thongchai, adding that 40 years ago and during the past decade, a number of media have been the culprits. An immediate question is why the media allowed themselves to be in such situations. While many think that most of the media were paid, he does not believe so. “There might be some indirect benefits.”
Joining the discussion were (from left) Thongchai Winichakul, Ubonrat Sirsyuvasak, and Pravit Rojanaphruk
“Media have inadequately respect their profession”
The reason media have not been able to steer away from being “culprits”, he thinks, is that people in media and intellectual realms have inadequately respected their own professions, which results in immaturity.
“It is acceptable for Thai media to choose sides,” Prof. Thongchai comments. However, he shares interesting experiences while living in other (foreign) countries that media in the west also choose sides explicitly but most of them are “media on the fringe”, who have had only few readers, and have influenced among a limited number of people.
On the contrary, Thai media, who explicitly choose sides are very influential among readers. Those who try to be neutral are labelled as the opposite side. “It is interesting to find out why such media have their spaces and influence in Thai society.”
“This reflects quality of intellectual culture of Thai society. It is the quality of Thai intellectuals, including journalists, the educated, academic people, artists, and writers. Media reflects quality and the number of these groups,” Prof. Thongchai points out.
“Thai Society Needs to Go Beyond Impunity”
In every profession, there are codes of ethics. And it is considered a serious mistake when they are infringed upon, he adds. In the 1976 October incident, he views that media must take responsibility for their mistake at least in their conscious minds. “They need to accept that they did the wrong things. At least, Thai society needs to go beyond the culture of impunity. What our society needs to create is the culture of accepting consequences of doing wrong.”
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak: “Now let’s turn to Pravit, who wrote his journal about how he was treated during detention. How have media been affected by the violence? And do you think can media protect themselves from the violence? ”
Pravit Rojanaphruk views that quality of media reflects Thai society. “Looking back when Ajarn Thongchai was a university student in the 1976 October era, there were witch-hunting and intolerance. There are many factors we need to take into consideration and put forward a question: how have we reached this point?” he comments.
Photo courtesy Julia Reinhart
“No Real Freedom of Expression in Thai society”
Intolerance of different viewpoints still remains intact in our society, as seen in media, especially in social media, he adds. “Hate speeches, repetition of intolerance of different political stances, and mudslinging have gone viral so much so that it seems there have been no neutral viewpoints, which is a serious crisis.”
“There is no real freedom of expression in Thai society, for media and for the public,” he stresses, illustrating that more than 40 persons have been arrested, being accused of violating the 112 article of the Lese Majeste Law. Wishing to forcefully convey only the “correct information”, the junta government censors only the opposite viewpoints and not the supporting viewpoint, Pravit adds, as we can see in the case of Khun Sia of Thairat newspaper, the cartoonist, being summoned, and Khun Chai Rajawat, who is on the opposite political stance, not being summoned. This is despite the fact that they both frankly criticize. “If you explicitly cheer the NCPO, you will not be summoned but if you question or criticize, you will be warned.”
He laments on little concerns of media people in organizations in protecting freedom of expression of those who have different views. However, he thanks the Thai Journalists Association for its statement calling for his release on his second detention.
Pravit agrees with Thongchai that Thai society seriously lacks culture of criticism. “Not only the public but also media, are in need of media literacy. Reporters need to know that news reporting must be neutral and balanced, unlike opinions or commentaries, where authors’ political stances can be expressed.”
In response to Ajarn Thongchai’s question: “why have media choosing sides had such extensive influence?”, Pravit reflects that “this is because a great number of Thais have already chosen sides and riveted their beliefs everyday via social media, retweeting information they agree upon, while at same time attacking the opposite.”
“It would be interesting if there is a comparative study on the similarities and differences of Thai politics in the 1976 October event and the present situation, in aspect of political views,” he says.