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Thai journalists need the same unity shown in Myanmar

Thais tend to take pride that their homeland is "superior" to Myanmar in the sense that the latter is the poorest country in the region.

However, like it or not, Myanmar seems to have enjoyed more progress in one area - integrity and strength in the journalistic community.

Journalists in Myanmar have been closely watching developments in Thailand, and two recent episodes surely have kept them on the edges of their seats.

One concerns a report leaked by a big corporation with details about monthly payments made to senior editors in return for favours, while the other is about the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)'s latest announcement that the media will come under stricter control.

The leaked report named senior editors as being on the payroll of big corporations - some getting more than Bt100,000 a month - in return for favours such as having reporters cover press conferences or other events hosted by the company or blocking negative reports about it. If true, it would be downright humiliating.

In Thai culture, gifts are a token of respect. Thus it is not unusual to see corporate public-relations officers in the newsroom delivering gifts. However, journalistic ethics require that our reports be based on facts and not be softened by special treatment.

All right, I have to admit that, if a reporter is given a junket to a luxury hotel by the beach, with a chauffeured ride, good food, plus spa service, there is little chance he will say anything bad about the property. However, taking cash in exchange for positive reports goes beyond the pale. It is destructive, given that Thailand's news industry has just welcomed a lot of fresh faces. And, if the leaked report is correct and the wrongdoers are not punished, one would assume that behaviour like this is acceptable.

However, what surprised me most was a comment posted on Facebook by a senior reporter, attacking another for being "unusually rich" and hinting at links with the corporation in question - a move that at best is unethical, since the probe is not finished yet. Then there were the responses, many of which were negative and, instead of focusing on journalistic ethics, veered into the realm of personal attacks.

This episode also infringes on public trust, a key factor that ensures press freedom at a time when it's being threatened. The latest NCPO decision on press controls was announced late on Friday.

Some journalists cried foul over the order to "not criticise the NCPO or relevant individuals". A newswire used the word "gag" to describe the order, while some screamed that the move was the worst example of interference to date. Those monitoring developments in Myanmar will be reminded of the time when the military was in power there.

Even now, with the establishment of a quasi-civilian government, reporters in Myanmar are being intimidated.

It started with a three-month jail sentence delivered last December to Eleven Media reporter Khine Khine Aye Cho, better known by her pseudonym Ma Khine. She was jailed for defamation, trespassing and using abusive language while reporting a farmer's complaints over land seizures.

Then came the one-year prison sentence given to Zaw Pe, a reporter for the online news site Democratic Voice of Burma. He was found guilty of "trespassing" and "disturbing a civil servant on duty" while reporting about a scholarship.

The biggest shock arrived last month when four reporters for the Unity Journal and its CEO were sentenced to 10 years in jail with hard labour for publishing a report on a weapons factory. Their lawyers complained about the unusually speedy prosecution.

Prior to that, it was reported that some editors of daily newspapers had been summoned by police to explain why they continued printing when their publications were making no money.

The Unity Journal case unleashed anger in the Myanmar journalistic community. Around 50 journalists staged a silent protest in front of the Myanmar Peace Centre, where President Thein Sein was expected for an event. Some were charged for protesting without permission, while Ray Keh from the Mizzima news agency was fined 20,000 kyat for participating.

"I would have been happy to even accept a prison term," Ray Keh said.

Obviously, these reporters are fighting to safeguard their freedom, and with strong backing from international organisations like Reporters without Borders and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, they are ready to fight for their peers regardless of the banners they work under.

In comparison to their counterparts in Thailand, many live in poor conditions. The Internet speed in their offices is often painfully slow, so most have to rely on their smartphones to access the Net. They're paid a pittance compared to what Thai journalists make.

It's time to see what Thai journalists do to safeguard their integrity and freedom. A question was raised in the social media recently about whether we in Thailand can be as strong as our counterparts in Myanmar. Honestly, I have no idea.


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