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Now we know the value of free media

The storming of television stations by protesters has forced a re-evaluation of this cornerstone of democracy

Anti-government demonstrators proclaimed a cautious victory yesterday in what they call their long battle against the Thaksin regime. But protesters had already lost many "friends" for their intimidation of the media. On Sunday the demonstrators stormed into six television stations and demanded coverage for their side. They accused free TV of biased reporting, but their own actions were certainly a violation of media freedom and drew complaints from several media organisations. However, the move by Suthep Thuagsuban-led protesters has had a positive affect, bringing a re-evaluation of the media, its freedom and its role and obligations in society, especially at a time of conflict.

The anti-government campaign's accusation has forced TV stations to consider whether they are performing their duty to keep the public informed of political events. Suthep asserted that the free TV stations - mostly under influence of government and businesses - have failed to adequately cover the protest movement. Prior to his statement, the social media were buzzing with complaints that free TV was paying little attention to the protests. The clash in front of Ramkhamhaeng University on Saturday night, which left one person dead and many injured, did not make it onto free TV at all.

While condemning the intimidation of media by the protesters, the Thailand Journalist Association (TJA) expressed concern that most TV stations are failing to report the widespread protests, preferring instead to keep their normal schedule of programmes. "Commercial benefits have taken priority over the public interest and right to information," the TJA said. But pressure on media organisations is also coming from the government side, with its public-relations department working overtime to present a pro-government picture of events.

While the profit motive explains why commercial TV stations are largely ignoring the crisis, the lack of coverage on mainstream free TV needs to be thoroughly examined. Here we need to focus on the difference between choosing not to broadcast protests and being coerced into doing so. If free TV stations decide such coverage is not in the public interest, they have no obligation provide it. But if they are in some way being coerced into ignoring protests, media freedom is being infringed.

Suthep has apologised to the media outlets, but claimed their failure to reflect the importance of "the people's uprising" meant he had no choice but to storm their premises. The former Democrat Party chieftain might have gained some sympathy, but media intimidation is simply not acceptable in a democracy, and especially at this time when society is most in need of independent sources of information. His action deserves just as much criticism as does the government's influence on free TV.

Nevertheless, the misstep may be a blessing in disguise, since it offers an opportunity for soul-searching. The television stations will have to determine whether their lack of coverage is a matter of their own freedom to choose or complying with the government. They should ponder why most people are looking to satellite TV and the social networks for the information. At the same time, the government must bear in mind that a free press is a cornerstone of democracy that must not be undermined. And the National Broadcast and Telecommunication Commission must weigh these questions as it prepares to regulate more digital channels.


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