Veteran journalist and editor Suchada Chakpisuth explains why she is shocked at the way the media bend the truth
A veteran of the publishing world with a career that goes back more 30 years, Suchada Chakpisuth has long held firm to a code of ethics under which the media must always embrace accuracy and remain impartial.
Her non-profit foundation, Thai Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism [TCIJ], an independent, online investigative news provider founded in 2011, has faced several challenges in its short life, not least the cutting off of its funding in 2014 after it reported that a food conglomerate had bribed journalists.
The allegations, which Suchada, 61, was able to back up, saw TCIJ’s main sponsor, a state agency, cease all support. The affected media organisations were also furious, insisting that they did not receive bribes and calling her an “outsider” who did not understand normal practices between the media and the corporate world.
Yet through it all she stood firm, continuing to report news in depth and cover “untold” stories.
“The media must dig out the facts behind stories. It cannot just cover general events,” she says.
The bribery brouhaha eventually blew over though not before Suchada decided to downsize the TCIJ and move its office from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Sponsorship resumed, though this time from international organisations, which agreed with her ideology.
“I have no idea which local organisations would support my mission to report hidden facts and raise people’s awareness of suspicious activities in our society,” she says.
“My commitment to telling things as they really are was born during the October 6, 1976 massacre of protesting students at Thammasat University.
Suchada was among the hundreds of students stuck in the university when it was engulfed by military and paramilitary forces following media reports that a play staged by student protesters the previous day had mocked a member of the Royal Family. Those reports, she says, were “totally distorted” yet taken at face value, leading to an assault the following morning at dawn, killing several students and injuring many more. “Some were beaten until they died then strung up on trees,” she says.
Suchada, who was in her first year at Thammasat’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, was one of the performers in the play. “So I knew the reports were untrue. The play looked at the case of two anti-dictatorship activists who were beaten to death who were hanged after putting up posters against ex-PM Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. We knew the offenders were state officials but they were never brought to justice.”
Like many of her fellow students, Suchada was able to escape the gunfire by jumping in the adjacent Chao Phraya River and also like them fled into the jungle where she would stay for five years. There she became very sick and it wasn’t until 1983 that her health had improved sufficiently for her to return to Bangkok. The political situation had eased and she was able to return to Thammasat where she chose a newspaper major for her Bachelor’s agree.
“I wanted to be a journalist to experience how journalists work and answer my own questions as to why some journalists feel they have to distort the news,” she says.
“It was then that I realised just how powerful the media is. Years have passed but I still feel pain when I see the media reporting false information.”
In 1985, Suchada set up the magazine “Sarakadee” (“Documentary”) with support from an entrepreneur, The magazine still exists today.
“I think magazines are far more powerful than news media. With artistic pictures and beautiful language, they can reach readers very easily,” she says,
After six years as chief editor at “Sarakadee”, she left to set up the children’s magazine “Dino-san”, which was recognised with several awards before being forced to shut down when the Asian economy went into a meltdown eight years later.
Her interest in kids and education grew as a result of “Dino-san” and Suchada went to work researching alternative education, namely home schooling, learning from folk wisdom and other institutions in addition to traditional schools. Her study, which was funded by the Thailand Research Fund, led to the recognition of alternative education, and it was eventually enshrined in the 2007 Constitution.
In 1998, she also became involved in the “Midnight University”, a virtual university offering free public education. It was shut down following the 2006 coup.
In 1999, Suchada joined with non-governmental organisations in setting up the “Prachatham” news agency, which covers news of the poor and marginal.
“I left Prachatham to found the TCIJ, because I wanted to make hidden facts public,” she says.
Throughout her journalistic journey, she has heard many complaints about the quality of the national mass media including accusations of taking sides and failing to report facts.
“My research clearly shows that reporters rarely dig deeper when the facts are doubtful and only cover events on a daily basis.
“Some journalists do not question or critically think about suspicious events surrounding our society. They do not report critical issues, corruption, the state’s abuse of power, and many other affairs that are hushed up.
“How can the media function as the county’s watchdog when they ignore what matters to the country or promote the state’s abuse of power?”
“That said, I do understand
the limitations of the media. It’s a kind of business. To survive in the market, it has to focus on sales volume and profits. It has to care about advertising income. So they tend not to report facts that might negatively affect their sponsors.”
The rapid growth of the media industry since 1992 and the rush to recruit journalists to meet the demand led to many reporters coming from other fields of studies in addition to journalism, she says.
“And they are not trained to be critical journalists. I don’t blame the journalists, although the problem of the media stems from the way they report. The journalists are products of Thai education system. So if we want to reform the media, we must reform education and other systems in the society simultaneously.”
Apart from covering news, the TCIJ also holds an annual project called “TCIJ School”. Organised for the past three consecutive years, it aims to build media literacy in participants and produce quality investigative coverage.
“I hope to see journalists cover investigative news, question what is uspicious and report it, so that our society progresses. And I also hope that the next generation sees through the media’s tricks and are not fooled by false news like I have witnessed in the past.”