Discourse on the Establishment
Both quantitative content analysis and qualitative analysis in this study point to a media message bias in favor of the Establishment. In particular, the qualitative analysis brought evidence of the existence of a frame pattern which can be synthesized as follow: the Establishment’s decisions and acts are rational and inevitable. They are authoritative reactions caused and justified by the protesters’ previous decisions and actions. The two newspapers, Bangkok Post and The Nation, distinctively demonstrate in their coverage the confrontational, unreasonable, unjustifiable rallies which finally led to violence, bloodshed and death.
By contrast, the Establishment is described positively in the Us-Them framework. When controversial actions involving the Establishment is being reported, the Government and the Army are often described as (1) having “no choice but to enforce the law” and being “forced” to act, or (2) removed from the text, not given the agency of the (controversial) actions.
The first device means that the Establishment is portrayed as determined to use non violent strategies (BP front page headline. “Abhisit resolute on non violence.” April 9, 2010) and eventually is “forced” to use violence when it “had no choice” because of previous actions performed by the protesters.
Political chaos forced Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to declare a state of emergency - or martial law - covering Bangkok and its neighbouring provinces. . The government is struggling to restore calm as the red-shirt protesters continue rallying (TN. “Ongoing conflict threatens Thai credit rating.” April 10, 2010).
It can and will be argued that this section was inevitable because the government could not allow major parts of the city to be taken over indefinitely by the demonstrators (TN. “Ongoing conflict threatens Thai credit rating.” April 10, 2010).
…the government was held with no other option but to press further with the use of force to break up the protest at Ratchaprasong intersection. (BP. “Law and order must prevail.” May 20, 2010).
On top of this, in the case of violence and killings, the Establishment is removed from the text and, thus, the agency of the violent action is hidden from public perception. This device reinforces the crackdown by government troops whilst denying state accountability. The logic would trickily charge the Red Shirt – ‘the Other’ as the party instigating violent actions. In the eye of the readers, the Protesters is perceived as the culprit and must take full responsibility in the event.
Water cannon and tear gas were used, baton charge initiated and finally rubber bullets were fired. (TN. “Yesterday's bloodbath is a wake-up call to halt the slide towards anarchy.” April 11, 2010).
Here the questions are: who used those instruments? Who initiated the charge? And who did fire rubber bullets? The reader is not given these pieces of information. The same is true for the following extracts:
But the red shirts refused to leave and fought back, which led to the bloodshed. (TN. “Ongoing conflict threatens Thai credit rating.” April 10, 2010).
The fighting claimed 21 lives and left 858 people injured. The government ordered troops to withdraw late on Saturday night. (BP. “Govt weighs early dissolution.”April 12, 2010).
The first extract shows how the responsibility of the “bloodshed” is given only to the protesters. The second extract shows how, in the first sentence, which is the most controversial because resulted in a number of deaths; the agency is removed from the Government (which ordered the action to take place) and the Army (which acted). Yet, in the second sentence, which is arguably more ‘positive’ because it involves a withdrawing from a controversial action, the agency is given to the Government and also the Army.
Therefore, in the two extract above, first the Establishment is not given agency for the “fighting”, which in order to remove the agent it is not reported as the verb ‘to fight’ but as a subject, and secondly it is given agency for the action of bringing to an end the deadly situation. This technique is widely used to ‘mask’ the most controversial actions undertook by the Establishment, especially on pivotal moments. For example, the same device is utilized in another front page news story published after the final crackdown:
A total of 52 people have been killed, 15 of them on Wednesday and yesterday, and 399 have been injured since last Friday, according to the Erawan Emergency Centre. (BP. “A nation mourns.” May 21, 2010).
Here the question is: who killed the people? The author doesn’t say. The agent is removed. Interestingly, in the same article the author does not remove the agent when he describes the damage inflicted to buildings:
Provincial halls in Udon Thai, Ubon Ratchathani, Mukdahan and Khon Kaen were also torched by angry red shirt members on Wednesday.
In this sentence, not only the agency is given to “red shirt members”, but the author adds an unfavorable adjective – “angry” – to describe the agent. This is a rather typical operation: giving agency to the Protesters and characterizing them with unfavorable adjectives when they are responsible or allegedly responsible of controversial actions; while on the other hand removing the agency from the Establishment to conceal its responsibility for a number of controversial actions.
The effort of concealing the agent is related to the way the Establishment is portrayed. Being the ‘positive’ pole opposing to the Protesters’ ‘negative’ pole, the Establishment must be portrayed with characteristics opposed to their opponents. Given that the Others are depicted as violent and unreasonable, the Government and the Army are depicted as non-violent and rational.
The Us-Them opposition which is used to frame the Establishment against the Anti-establishment forces is reinforced with a dose of nationalism. In this case, the Others are depicted as selfish and egotistic – lacking that feeling of classless unity which in Thailand’s mainstream discourse tends to be considered as a positive value. By contrast, the Establishment is constantly portrayed as moved by nationalism, patriotism and selfless dedication to the community:
House dissolution or the prime minister’s resignation are possible in the democratic system. But it must be based on rationale. And my reasoning is in the national interest” (Quote from Abhisit, subhead on BP, March 15, 2010. “UDD sets noon deadline”).
… [Abhisit] would never allow personal interests to get in the way of government attempts to resolve what has become our biggest and bloodiest crisis in modern times (TN. “Our darkest hour.” April 11, 2010).
Research findings suggest that the monarchical institution and its members have also been utilized by BP and TN to frame the Government and the Army positively – and therefore to delegitimize the Protesters. The device is mostly through visual images. For example, both newspapers’ front pages show exactly the same photograph of members of the Royal Family in three special occasions during the March-April protest. Firstly when PM Abhisit was received by the King (image reported on both BP and TN front pages on March 9); secondly when the Queen participated at a soldier’s funeral (both BP and TN front pages on April 13); and thirdly when the Queen visited a wounded soldier in the hospital (both BP and TN front pages on April 16).
The English press and biased coverage of the March-May 2010 political protest
The Bangkok Post and The Nation, in their coverage of the 2010 political crisis, have followed the six characteristics of media coverage of protests identified by previous literature: (1) reliance on official sources; (2) spectacle; (3) selection of news frames; (4) delegitimation; (5) othering; and (6) demonization. Results from this study confirm the hypotheses.
First, BP and TN largely rely on official sources to frame the event. As a result, the Protesters were given less voice than the Establishment. Second, media give high attention to the ‘spectacle’, such as violence or protesters’ unconventional actions. As a result, the protesters’ demands, the question of whether the Abhisit government is legitimate or not, or the reasons which generated the protest, are not considered particularly newsworthy. Third, the two media organizations frame the event to support a particular agenda and a particular social bloc, which is the one they belong. Fourth, they delegitimize the protesters, their actions and demands. Fifth, they other the protesters into the Other of an Us-Them framework. Last, they demonize the protesters playing high the threat of violence before any violence took place, and then by successively focusing on conflict, violence and confrontation with the army, thus failing to report the protesters' official opponent (the government) and replacing it in the text with soldiers, non-protesting audiences and hostile citizenry. The result, as predicted by the Protest Paradigm, is a selection of news elements which give the impression that the protest is irrational, useless, nonsensically violent, unjustified, and the protesters’ actions are mere acts of hooliganism of marginal and troubled social individuals who are not respecting the law, the public/national interest and the ‘national identity’.
However, research findings suggest a difference in the stance of the Bangkok Post compared to The Nation. While BP appeared to be outright pro-establishment, the pro-establishment message produced by TN has been less marked. By contrast, TN’s anti-protesters stance appeared to be louder.
Contrary to other historic moments, the Bangkok Post and The Nation do not play a transformative role as ‘agents of change’. They do not even play the role of ‘agents of restraints’, i.e. they have not been neutral ‘checking and balancing’ monitors in a significant way, because they hardly ‘check’ the Establishment, but instead they tend to agree with and thus justify most decisions and action of the Government and Army. Therefore, the role of the two English-language newspapers in the 2010 political crisis can be described as politically conservative, because they support the Establishment, and have been an active force in defending the status quo against the challenge posed by the protest. In other words, this study suggests that the media coverage of the 2010 UDD protest is reflective of the editorial ethos of both newspapers which aimed at maintaining the status quo rather than challenging it.
The Bangkok Post and The Nation both claim to represent ‘public opinion’ and ‘national interest’, yet this research suggests that the two organizations can be better understood as representatives of a particular social bloc and social interest, which does not necessarily coincide with the nationwide public or with the ‘national interest’. Therefore, the reason d’être of The Bangkok Post and The Nation should not be understood as providing a meaningful voice for an imaginary broad and classless Thai citizenry, but rather in being a product and a voice of their owners, their editorial teams, their advertisers and their audience, virtually all of them belonging to a mostly Bangkok-based upper class.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alessio Fratticcioli is a MA graduate from Southeast Asian Studies Programme, Chulalongkorn University, 2012.