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This section presents the results of the quantitative analysis. Figures 1, 2 and 3 show the number of descriptive terms used in the selected 40-article sample to describe the Protest(ers) and the Establishment.
The study finds that during the four phases of the press coverage the Establishment is quoted higher than the Protesters at 72% versus 28%. Figure 4 shows the quotes produced by the forty articles in relation to both the Establishment and the Protesters that in each of the four phases the establishment is quoted/cited more than the protesters.
Figure 5 and 6 present the nouns and adjectives used in describing the Protesters in each of the four phases by the forty selected articles.
Figure 7 shows the results of favorable and unfavorable terms used by the selected articles in relation to the Establishment. Figure 8 shows the percentage of neutral, specific and unfavorable nouns used in relation to the Protesters in news, editorials and other types of articles.
When comparing the two newspapers, Bangkok Post and The Nation, the study finds that BP used a slightly higher percentage of neutral (30.2% versus 28.6%) and specific nouns (47.2% versus 43.9%) and less unfavorable nouns than TN (22.6% versus 27.5%). Also in the case of the adjectives, BP used less unfavorable terms than TN (45.2% versus 52%).
Findings from our quantitative analysis show that the media messages are composed by specific nouns and unfavorable adjectives associated with the Protesters while favorable terms are used for the Establishment. These messages are encoded with culturally loaded ideologies, beliefs, values, mind-sets, etc. This ‘loading’ is a result of the cultural or sub-cultural environment in which the message is forged. Therefore, newspaper stories can be understood as narratives which consist of information and ‘facts,’ but also of a subtext, i.e. an implicit and unspoken message which (consciously or unconsciously) boosts particular understandings of the reality and specific points of view. The underlying meaning can be suggested by categorizing people, actions, events, and places, or by using metaphors, catchphrases, cues and other symbolic devises, as well as by presenting the different actors in the story under different lights. These grammar and/or discourse devices are the main object of study of Critical Discourse Analysis (Fowler 1989; Fairclough 1989; van Dijk 1993).
Framing the Protest
The media messages of Bangkok Post and The Nation revolve around three main frames – Thaksin, Red Shirts and violence (or fear of it) - which they manage to interrelate closely.
The first frame is about the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s judicial case and persona. The debate took place in a cultural environment where Thaksin had already been elevated by the media to be the most evil social actor in the Kingdom, the Recognized Enemy of Thainess (Pavin 2011). The media narrative was both subtlety and overtly hostile to Thaksin. In phase 1, the February 26 judicial sentence which seized a part of Thaksin’s fortune was framed as the most salient news. The sentence was presented as a fair verdict. Both BP and TN published highly critical articles on Thaksin and they constructed front pages which suggested a clear anti-Thaksin stand. As confirmed by the quantitative analysis, the articles reported a large number of quotations from the Establishment, mostly treating Thaksin scornfully. They depicted him as an irrational and shady personality, an unhinged individual responsible for a massive anti-social effort that endangered the whole nation. In this way, Thailand’s political crisis is traced back to a single man. The frame has undoubtedly reduced the complexity of past events and the socio-political situation down to a mere ‘personality’ aspect.
The second frame revolves around the Red Shirt activists and the UDD protest. It was portrayed as an event instigated by Thaksin’s whims. BP and TN news frame was largely based on the assumption that the planned rally was construed as a result of the court verdict. Economic and socio-political causes were understated at best, and left totally unexplored at worst. On top of this, the ‘ordinary’ protesters were hardly given any voice. The Red Shirts were seen as uneducated and unsophisticated folk. The news frame delegitimized the protesters’ reasons and demands. Deep analysis of the nature of the UDD movement, of the requests of the protesters, and of the issues they were raising were almost absent from the two newspapers.
The protesters and their actions are closely linked to the third theme: violence. The English press coverage portrayed the threat of violence in phase 1 and 2, and emphasized real violence in phase 3 and 4. However, at the end of phase 1, both BP and TN steadily substituted the main focus of their news frame from Thaksin and his sentence to (the threat of) ‘violence.’ Consequently, hand in hand with the refusal of a serious analysis of the protest movement, both Bangkok Post and The Nation played up the threat of a violent outcome. Fear arousal was effectively used. Their narrative is formed around ‘strategy of tension’ until violence finally took place on April 10. To some extent, it is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Merton 1948).
Consequently, the three-pronged frame has circumscribed the needed negative public perception of the protest and justified the final crackdown by the Democrat government. The media narratives work effectively to delegitimize the Protesters and, on the other hand, to legitimize the Establishment. They stand out clearly as the opponent of (1) Thaksin, (2) the violent protesters and (3) violence, chaos and anarchy.
Discourse on the Protesters
The protesters are delegitimized by reducing their rationale to Thaksin’s whims and by portraying them as something between unscrupulous bough-off thugs, simpleton peasants incapable of taking rational political decisions and bona fide citizens ultimately deceived by evil leaders. The BP and TN vulgate goes like this: people who ‘don't know’ the truth or ‘cannot understand’ or ‘are too poor to think or care for justice and politics’ or are being used by people with ‘ulterior motives’.
This is evident in the following article by Minister of Finance Korn Chatikavanj:
“Perhaps, therefore, only the wealthy have the time and inclination to ponder on matters such as justice while the poor, who have to struggle to feed families, do not have that luxury. And when the majority is made up of poor people and the majority voice is what counts in a democracy, the resounding answer is seemingly “We don’t care.”” (Korn Chatikavanj. BP. March 5, 2010).
Basically, the author has two assumptions: (1) UDD activists are poor, and (2) poor people cannot understand politics. This contempt for the supposed ignorance of the “rural folk” does not come from one single author but is obvious in other media messages throughout the event from March to May. As an example, a piece by senior TN editor Tulsathit Taptim appeared on TN front page argued:
Many of the red protesters will be going home not quite knowing what they were in the city for. That represents the core problem of Thaksin’s political movement: nobody but him sees the whole picture, and everyone is unsure what anybody else is doing. (Tulsathit Taptim. “Bloody politics.” TN. March 17, 2010).
This kind of opinion, that protesters are simpletons, lacking knowledge, manipulated by shady and flawed leaders, are given ample space in BP and TN. They aim to label the protesters as ignoramus and unworthy. Furthermore, protesters’ voices are largely muted in both newspapers. They are, thus, reduced to an undistinguished crowd, which is a subtle device to depersonalize and dehumanize a social group. Protesters are frequently portrayed as not ‘normal,’ not like ‘us’, but different from ‘us’ and dangerous for ‘us’.
The closer the camera gets to them, the cockier they get. One man was in his underwear dancing for them. Another put up his toddler on the barricade. Somehow there was a desire to perform for the camera. One wondered why. (TN editorial. “This is no peasant revolt.” May 20, 2010).
…red shirts deserve to be condemned for suborning, encouraging and now supporting deadly violence without reason or justification. (BP editorial. “The shame of the UDD” May 18, 2010).
Protesters are portrayed as selfish, with no ‘common good’ at heart, not nationalist.
They [red shirts] proceeded to fabricate a strip of weak excuses and self-serving, selfish demands to the government. (BP editorial. “The shame of the UDD” May 18, 2010).
Protesters are also portrayed as evil and as harboring negative feelings in general.
It was the leaders themselves who, for the last two months, had repeatedly spoonfed the protesters with messages of hate against the government and the so called amataya elites, to the point that their minds became poisoned with a deep hatred against and distrust of the government and the amataya. (BP. “Law and order must prevail” May 20th, 2010).
A significant number of articles, especially analyses, columns, and editorial pieces, show derision, scorn and disdain on the protesters. There is little sympathy for the cause of the protesters. In fact, the dead bodies among the protesters are usually left unnamed on the columns of BP and TN.
Visual images also reinforce this bias. For example, on April 11, the day after clashes killed five soldiers, one Japanese journalist and twenty protesters, the BP front page displayed an oversized image of a wounded soldier. The next page reiterated how the troops were more affected by violence, although the casualties among the civilians had been four times higher. On April 13, both BP and TN showed on their front pages a visual of the Queen “over a royal bathing ceremony” for the funeral of a soldier killed on April 10. This is meaningful because images of funerals of approximately eighty anti-government civilians killed in April and May 2010 did not find space on the front pages of either BP or TN. Not even in a single case.
Similarly, after the May 19 final crackdown both papers publish evocative articles and headlines, such as “Fiery anarchy” (TN. May 20, 2010), “Thailand’s blackest day” (TN. May 20, 2010) or “A nation mourns” (BP. May 21, 2010). These texts are coupled with powerful visuals which occupied a good part of the front page. Yet, they do not portray any of the dozens victims or thousands injured, but mostly buildings which have been damaged or destroyed. Consequently, the oversized headlines and visuals seem to suggest that the ‘blackest day’ and the ‘mourning’ BP and TN are talking about is not about the loss of human lives, but rather for the loss of property in downtown Bangkok.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alessio Fratticcioli is a MA graduate from Southeast Asian Studies Programme, Chulalongkorn University, 2012.