The latest move by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to micro-manage the traditional and new media after the May 22 power seizure could seriously tarnish or even paralyse the NCPO's public diplomacy within Thailand and abroad.
Judging from the comments and actions of its media officials, the NCPO should immediately consider ceasing its current anti-media operation, which could easily cause civic disengagement through widespread confusion. It could also harm the NCPO’s professed noble intentions of promoting accurate information and accountability.
In fact, there are better ways to achieve these objectives without intimidation or breaking into newspaper editorial rooms or TV studios.
First, the freedom of expression that Thai people once enjoyed must be restored as soon as possible. We must not forget Thailand means the ‘Land of the free’. Within the region, it has been known as a tolerant nation that respects a free press. It would be wise to repeal the ten announcements restricting media freedom in various forms affecting all news media platforms.
Prior to 2000, rankings of Thai media freedom were among the top tiers of numerous international indexes. For instance in 2000, the New York-based Freedom House ranked Thailand at 29th under the Chuan Leekpai government, compared to 141 this year. Should the trend persist, Thailand could eventually turn into a dictatorial state and serve as a target for free-media advocacy groups.
Furthermore, the NCPO needs officials who can engage effectively with the media, not by some who think they know the media, which is often the case. They must be able to distinguish good and bad journalism – avoiding mao-keng or “generalising” the media they encounter.
Pol General Adul Saengsingkaew, deputy head of NCPO, who is responsible for media policy, had a stellar record in the southern provinces a few years back with his transparency and media-friendly approach. His experience must be put into full practice among his officials now at the national level.
In any circumstance, the NCPO must not expect journalists both local and foreign to write whatever they are told. It is understandable that cynicism is still high given the smear campaigns perpetuated by some media before the coup. Therefore, the NCPO has imposed its own media standards and judgements, which are not shared norms and values.
For example, Announcements No 12, No 14 and No 18 were ill-conceived and should be annulled immediately. Each media outlet must be held responsible and accountable for its content. For whatever reason, the NCPO finds a media product unpalatable, it can take action through the rule of law on a case by case basis. The best thing to do is to provide up-to-date information and answer questions from the media at all times in all circumstances.
Due to a growing interest in “Amazing Thailand” around the world, better communications skills, in multiple foreign languages, among NCPO officials are thus essential.
More than ever before, the NCPO should consult and work closely with the National Press Council of Thailand (NPCT) and the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), which oversee the codes of conduct. They would be the most appropriate organisations to handle media misgivings, especially when outlets misreport or distort information. The NPCT and TJA must be given opportunities to carry out their professional commitments. Under the current leadership, they are not the paper tigers they appear to be. Any unilateral action by the NCPO would be detrimental and self-defeating. In Thai culture, asking for cooperation – koh kham ruam mue – is often perceived as a veiled intimidation. Failure to comply means retaliation.
Equally, granted the country’s media vibrancy, further prompted by the recent drive to digitalisation, Thai media workers urgently need comprehensive capacity-building in fundamental and investigative reporting. The younger generation has been brought up with social media views, obtaining and disseminating information differently from older colleagues. In addition, the country’s cross-cutting issues today require better understanding and skills to write balanced reports.
Truth be told, the Thai media community – albeit its deficiencies – has performed well in its duties of disseminating information and analysis throughout long-standing political uncertainties. And let’s not forget, no journalist in this part of the world faces such regular conundrums, which cause further media malaise and partisanship.
Finally, media proprietors, managers and editors in Thailand need a new mindset that would allow their journalists to do their jobs with dignity, despite differing views. Corporate interests, which have permeated the media industry after the economic crisis of 1997, must be boldly trimmed. Currently the Thai media survival instinct, based on social responsibility and political trust, has already given way to ugly commercialism and personal idiosyncrasy.
Thai media is colourful, dynamic and uneven. It is still the country’s biggest asset. Spare it. Given the NCPO’s desire to transform Thailand into a truly democratic country, Thai media must continue to serve as an impartial watchdog as well as an agent and a platform for debate and public learning.