Hard-earned press freedom needs serious safeguarding

opinion May 13, 2014 00:00

By Achara Deboonme

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Last year, 70 journalists were killed, many caught in the crossfire of armed hostilities. Fourteen more have suffered the same fate this year. Also last year, 211 journalists were imprisoned for their work.

Some 456 journalist have been forced into exile since 2008. And since 1992, well over 1,000 journalists have been killed – nearly one per week.
The records shared by the United Nations on May 3 – World Press Freedom Day – are astonishing. As a journalist, I feel sad for all those colleagues who have suffered from intimidation.
I was put in that situation in 2006, when more than 1,000 pro-Thaksin protesters laid siege to our office, demanding we give up a reporter from our sister publication. The siege started in the morning and I was told not to drive my car to the office. I arrived at the scene at noon, to see protesters surrounding entrances they had roped off. I pretended to be one of them and sneaked in, joining a skeleton staff in the newsroom. Others had been told to work from home for their safety. As the speakers blared outside, we braced for an invasion. Instead, tensions ebbed and the protesters dispersed around 8pm, leaving the path clear for me to leave the office.
So I understand how staff at five TV stations must have felt on Friday when anti-Thaksin protesters seized their buildings. The reason given for the invasion was familiar: the stations’ reporting was biased. Well, I admit that journalists can be biased, but there must be a better method of regulation than threats and force.
Modern news reporting dates back to the early 17th century, when the first newspaper was created. Journalism can hardly be described as a well-paid job. But it has thrived because a dedicated few see the value of this form of mass communication. The pride and job satisfaction lies in gathering news from firsthand sources and relaying it to your audience. We cherish the opportunity to report on significant issues like climate change or ageing societies that are, or soon will be, affecting us all.
Yet however dedicated their staff, newspapers go out of business – and one of the reasons is biased reporting.
Thanks to the advent of the Internet and its countless media sources, the public is more sensitive to media bias nowadays. Stories are shared through Facebook or Twitter and any prejudice is quickly exposed.   
Adding to the scrutiny are the professional media associations to which newspapers belong, which, alongside industry regulators, monitor the quality of reporting by their members.
It thus surprised me when German photojournalist Nick Nostitz was attacked last week outside the Constitutional Court. It was the second time in six months Nostitz had been attacked by guards attached to the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
Soon after, the PDRC surrounded the five TV stations, accusing them of a lack of neutrality, and demanding that they cease covering government affairs.
I can’t help feeling that if the PDRC doubts the quality of reporting, it should lodge official complaints with media associations and the regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). Instead the movement decided to use force against TV stations for the second time since protests began six months ago.
It was good to see the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association and Journalists Association respond by demanding an immediate halt to PDRC harassment (a demand that was nevertheless ignored). What surprised me was the NBTC’s silence.
The Constitution clearly states that not even the government and the station owners can meddle in TV reporting, whose integrity should rest with reporters.
Journalists the world over work hard to gather information from all sides. Some do their job badly, but this is not a reason to curtail  press freedom with threats or use of force, which will only rebound on other journalists. In the old days, newspapers were the only source of information. To preserve their integrity and to maintain press freedom, journalists make sacrifices. How many other relatively poorly paid jobs require that you work odd hours or weekends and demand that you are on-call for any major incident?
The single-source era of newspapers has given way to the many wellsprings of breaking news that flow through Twitter, Facebook et al. Yet for reliable news you need journalists who are trained to maintain high levels of integrity by staying true to the facts and remaining non-partisan. Without them, you are reliant on unregulated citizen reporters (who you don’t know).  
In 2009, the five protesters who led the siege of Nation headquarters were sentenced to two years in jail by the Criminal Court. Will PDRC leaders be held responsible this latest round of media intimidation?
“Freedom of expression, independent media and universal access to knowledge will fortify our efforts to achieve lasting results for people and the planet,” said UN chief Ban Ki-moon this month.
If we want good journalism to survive in Thailand, we must heed that advice.