We Will Never See a High Quality Thai Newspaper

In his book Flat Earth News*, Nick Davies outlines some of the problems afflicting the media industry: the conversion of newspapers into primarily commercial operations means that (as was a leitmotif in the fifth series of The Wire) there is a need to ‘do more with less’ and this means journalists are under pressure to produce copy more and more rapidly. As a result, the quality of the stories produced declines as there are fewer opportunities to check facts and impart judgment – on the other hand, there has grown a public relations industry (including PR functions for large organizations, scientific journals, political parties – just about every organized part of society) determined to produce copy of its own which can be cut and pasted directly into the paper.

To all of this may be added the problem of the internet – as dozens of newspapers close across Europe and the USA, more and more people expect to obtain their news via the internet and for free. I can, for example, access all the content from the Bangkok Post and The Nation for free (which is about all it is worth in the case of The Nation these days) – although I still subscribe to the print edition of the Bangkok Post, presumably many people do not. Almost certainly, therefore, at a time of economic crisis, papers are going to reduce costs or else face going bust.**

So the question is, given the problems that the media in Thailand already face (improperly trained journalists, culture of deference, self-censorship, fear of draconian laws and so forth) and combine them with these new constraining factors, will we ever get a decent newspaper in the Kingdom? It seems not.

* More information about these subjects is also available at the website of the same name, which is here.

** Assuming, that is, that no one can work out a reliable and profitable method of charging people for web access to news and preventing cross-linking, copying and so forth. Despite Rupert Murdoch’s attempts to try to do this, the prospects at the moment do not seem to me at least to be slender at best/

Live at the Witch Trials

The SET Index fell by more than 1% again today but apparently that is all right – there are no malevolent (probably foreign) secret agents spreading rumours about Thailand today. However, the faithful boys in brown are about to arrest more people who certainly did spread rumours (well, according to these people anyway). It appears that they would quite like to close down the websites too but have to wait for the Ministry of Information Suppression Communication and Technology. By bizarre coincidence, one of those websites (the excellent prachatai.com) has been critical of the current government on occasion.

According to Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders): Thailand is ranked 130th out of 175 countries for press freedom.

2008: 124th

2007: 135th

2006: 122nd

2005: 107th

2004: 59th

2003: 82nd

2002: 65th

Press Freedom – I’m Sorry, I Can’t Talk about That

Press freedom is down in Thailand again – the Kingdom is now ranked 130th out of 175 countries according to Reporters sans Frontières – it is the result of the censorship of thousands of websites and community radio stations, the willingness of the Abhisit regime to resort to ISA laws and states of emergency to suppress political dissent and the intimidating effects of the lese majeste laws. Still, at least we’re still above Singapore. As Bangkok Pundit (who seems to have nodded a couple of times recently) pointed out, there was a high point of 66th back in 2002. Where should Thailand be in the scheme of things? Well, there is a general presumption that economic growth is correlated with winning democratic privileges, personal liberties in terms of freedom of association and freedom of speech and so forth. On this presumption, Thailand should be approximately at the same level as its ranking in terms of overall economic development. In addition, bearing in mind that some countries with high economic growth still maintain authoritarian political regimes (notably China, of course but also some of the former Soviet nations), then Thailand should be slightly higher than its economy suggests. Of course, there is a need for people to be able to protect themselves from lies and malice reported in the media. For as long as I have been looking at the Thai media, it seems as if scarcely a week goes by without some slanderous allegation being made or another – allegations, for example, of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, treason and plotting an armed coup (and these are just the comments of senior members of the cabinet). Clearly, these comments have the effect of potentially damaging the reputation of a person or an organization (the fact that the laws of libel in Thailand can be very draconian is not relevant to whether people should have recourse to them). Hence, it is perfectly right for people to challenge what is said about them, whether in error or from malice. Of course, that does not mean that a fair trial is guaranteed, as certain recent cases demonstrate. However, this is quite different from press freedom.

Rumours but not Fleetwood Mac (one for the Teenagers)

Well, as I suggested yesterday (honestly), what goes down without much reason will go back up again and, blow me down, the SET Index has rebounded to recoup all of yesterday’s losses. Just as yesterday’s losses were fuelled by unfounded rumours (which is now being admitted by the English language newspapers), so the reverse has happened today.

While certain people seek out ‘rumour-mongers’ to punish and malign, most of the rest of society wonders why it is not recognised that openness and transparency is probably the best policy on a day to day basis (the vapid one was earlier reported to be set to blame a particular company, for example, although I cannot find the link just now).

Rumour is a powerful thing and, like conspiracy theory, it flourishes in the absence of openness. In Malaysia, there has long been a tradition of poison pen letters aimed at blackening the reputation of certain people. Even today, in the newspapers there, it is clearly printed in every edition that obituaries will not be printed without some heavy duty proof of death and of the bona fides of the person wishing to insert the obituary. Although on the one hand this seems deplorable, it does seem to indicate how people have to behave in order to get their views across in a repressive society – Malaysia used the pretext of the Communist rebellion and the possibility of inter-racial riots to maintain a version of the ISA that undemocratic governments like the present one are using here. Only more so, I suppose.

In a globalised world, all markets (and all societies) are connected deeply with each other and even if the authorities here suppress news, it will still come out in other countries. Even during the suppression of the Saffron Revolution in Burma, mobile phones and twitter and so forth were used to smuggle news out to international attention.

Anupong to Sue? Good

Free speech is a healthy aspect of society, as has been demonstrated by a variety of evidence over the years. However, there must be limits to that free speech and it is possible to differ honestly over where those limits should be set. Many people would agree that making unfounded accusations of murder or attempted murder against specific individuals would be beyond the pale. In such cases, it is reasonable for those people who have been so accused to have recourse to the law to protect their reputation – even if they are subsequently brought to trial for the same alleged offence or similar, then it is quite possible that the accusations will prejudice the possibility of a fair trial and for that reason also should not have been made.

It is, therefore, a positive thing that the military chief General Anupong Paojinda has responded to evidence-light accusations that he was in some way linked to the attempted assassination of the convicted criminal Sondhi Limthongkul with a threat to sue anyone repeating the slur. Everyone should be treated fairly and equally before the law, no matter what position or opinions they hold. Problems tend to arise when free speech is suppressed (openly or otherwise) and the rule of law is not seen to be handed out impartially. This gives rise to conspiracy theories. People who live in Thailand will be aware of the kinds of rumours that are repeated every day – most of which could result in severe trouble for anyone who were to post them or publish them or is even overheard and reported.

Improvements in technology mean that the ability to record events has become more widespread. However, it is not yet true that this technology has made the truth available to everyone. Events remain contested and the state continues to try to privilege one side of the story.

Thailand’s Media

Why is the Thai media so irresponsible and inaccurate? Day after day, obvious lies are passed off as truth or ‘comment,’ unsubstantiated assertions are made and conclusions drawn without evidence or logical thought. Last week the Nation carried reports that an agreement had been made with the UAE to have Thaksin Shinawatra extradited and/or that he had been banned from the country. That turned out to be a lie (or, shall we say, an inaccuracy). Now the Nation has a new story claiming that the Thai government has been “using all means to corner Thaksin.” No evidence is adduced to support this (after all, if they did, pointed questions would be asked about the court case involved) – then again, ‘senior government figures’ often turn out to be criminal slanderers: I wrote last week that Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya was openly Accusing Khun Thaksin of ordering the death of Sondhi Limthongkul (who had just been shot). No evidence at all – just a bald accusation – and this from a Foreign Minister.

So how do they get away with it? In his 2000 book, Politics and the Press in Thailand: Media Machinations, Duncan McCargo tends to put the blame on incompetent and poorly-trained journalists more accustomed to deferring to the pooyai (big people) and not questioning what they were told. However, he also includes a quote from Girling which said: “… with powerful protectors behind them, newspapers may also denounce or libel adversaries to a remarkable degree.”

This tendency of course continues – is it the case, then, that journalists, commentators and proprietors have mistaken the concept of free speech with the ability to say anything at all without penalty? During the Thai Rak Thai administrations, for example, there was much talk about suppression of free speech by recourse to the law of libel, yet few people acknowledged that a lot of what people were saying was, clearly, libelous – unsupported assertions which damage the reputation of a person or institution is a reasonable definition of libel. A lot of comment still is libelous.

Incoherent Industry Policies – Badly Reported or Inherently Incoherent or Both?

MCOT is reporting that the Industry Ministry is outlining a set of five ‘short-term’ policies aimed at relieving economic difficulties – it is a curious mix of measures and it is difficult to know whether this is poor reporting (it has not appeared in any obvious form on other English language websites) or poor presentation of policies or, perhaps, simply a sign of muddled thinking (of course, this being Thailand, all three of these could be possible simultaneously or two out of three etc and so on).

The policies are said to be:

A budget of more than Bt16 billion is needed for implementation of the five strategies, which are designed to build investor confidence, preventing mass layoffs, reviving the struggling industrial sectors, and ending the unrest in the three southern border provinces.”

Well, industrial policy would be an important part of a sustainable solution to the southern issues (although not while the army continues to run wild there) but it is hardly a ‘short-term’ measure. ‘Preventing mass layoffs’ suggests subsidizing failing companies – who is going to decide which company deserves and which does not (assuming not every company can afford the 80 million baht to buy a seat in the cabinet)? Which industries are to be revived? Surely the problem is (as I intend to write shortly, perhaps tomorrow), that the economy has not yet sufficiently moved on from the industries which have got Thailand to the middle income stage but which will be unable to get it to the high income state (which is what the World Bank calls the ‘middle income trap’)?

[No point looking up to the skies now as it is dark and I am indoors. Well, I could look up and life my skinny fists etc but would arguably end up in a strait waistcoat sooner or later.]