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Massive test ahead for Thai media

Our view of the world is fragmenting across seemingly endless channels; reporting that rises above the political divide is now the media's No 1 challenge

Easily as dizzying as our political evolution is the transformation Thai news media have undergone over the last decade. The coming year will see more changes thanks to the emergence of digital TV sets, which will herald furious competition in the broadcasting sector. And, as with other parts of society, the media need to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

The word "freedom" sounds ancient. Politically split Thailand has seen the likes of Bluesky, a satellite TV station that broadcasts anti-government content at will, and Asia Update, which is virtually the polar opposite. Meanwhile in the print media you can read whatever suits your ideological leaning. The online situation is the same. There is everything for anyone.

Many complain that content is censored. Don't be fooled. Thailand's media are as free or even more so than most of their international peers. Taboo issues are addressed on TV quite openly. News about censorship makes headlines and draws attention, but one thing has to be taken into account: If you can complain and your complaints get heard, things can't be that bad.

Among the many challenges facing the Thai media (the social media included), "freedom" is not at the top of the list. Rather, with political divisions dictating people's choices in media consumption, "responsibility" is what's most important. And although "responsibility" has become hard to define under the current political circumstances, that doesn't mean the way things are at the moment is how it's supposed to be.

Bluesky has been broadcasting "hardcore" anti-government content on a daily basis. On the other hand, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban are openly called dia-ra-chan - or "animals" (to put it mildly) - on pro-government channels. The more mainstream media, meanwhile, have been free of name-calling, but the political crossfire has made life difficult for their journalists.

The media's biggest challenge is to rise above the acrimonious political divide. All will say they can, but the truth is that few have been able to. To "rise above the divide" does not necessarily mean being strictly neutral, which has proved practically impossible. To rise above the conflict simply means reporting responsibly - perhaps somewhere between what free TV, Bluesky and Asia Update did in covering the height of the Suthep-led anti-government rally.

The next challenge is how to incorporate the increasingly influential social media to help reflect the truth and the opinions of all sides. This is also a delicate matter, because the social media are supposed to be allowed to grow naturally, beyond the influence of mainstream media, advertisers and the powers-that-be.

Last but not least, the media must acknowledge that technology is changing everything. Not just the way people are consuming news or how news is being gathered, but everything. Now that news can be consumed for free and corporations can push their advertisements onto the social media, conventional media have to rethink the definition of "success".

Money, certainly, is no longer the one and only barometer. This concept is easy to accept but far more difficult to respond to. Most media organisations still cling to traditional operating methods and staff roles, and calls for an overhaul often meet with resentment. However, to stand the test of time, everyone in the media industry, from low-ranking technicians to executives, will need to rethink everything - their roles, their skills, their benefits and more.

All these challenges have already presented themselves, each one more glaring than the other. But they will become acid tests in 2014. The year ahead will be tough, but the good news for the media is that they won't be alone.


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