Thai media and the problem of Bangkok-centric perception
Last week, Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote a story for The Nation about Thai film-maker Naulnoi Thammasathien, who talked about her upcoming documentary about life in Thailand’s southern border provinces and voiced her discontent about the Bangkok-centric media coverage:
Issues like rights of residents, normalcy and positive aspects of life in parts of the region are often overlooked, the filmmaker said. Her 40-minute documentary, titled “The Agent of Change”, screened in Bangkok on Monday.
Nualnoi said her film was different because it was made in collaboration with local Thai-Malay Muslims in the South. “People in the three southernmost provinces want others to see them in a positive light,” she explained.
She also called on the media to not just focus on people being arrested or accused of separatism, but also report if they are acquitted or they could be branded as separatist for good. The separatist strife has taken more than 5,000 lives over the past eight years and injured 10,000 others.
(…) The rest of Thai society still lacked adequate understanding of the South, while people in the region were given little say or a chance to participate in how conflicts are resolved.
“Media reports on insurgency one-sided : filmmaker“, The Nation, September 12, 2012
This is certainly not a new complaint and indeed the only news stories we hear from the South are about the nearly decade-long violent insurgency. TThailand’s media organizations (especially the newspapers) have a tendency to turn a blind eye not only to the South, but to everywhere outside Bangkok.
One excellent source of information about the Thai media landscape is “Politics and the Press in Thailand: Media Machinations“ by Prof. Duncan McCargo of the University of Leeds, who carried out in-depth research about the workings of Thai newspapers in the late 1990s. Most of his findings remain valid today. Here’s one:
Another feature of the Thai news media is its Bangkok focus. (…) The division of editorial departments into desks is revealing: typically, Thai newspapers have desks for types of news (…) In addition to these, they have a separate desk for ‘provincial’ news. Any news story which breaks outside Bangkok is first and foremost a provincial story; only in a secondary sense will it be considered a crime story, a political story, or whatever.
Thai newspapers do not, as a general rule, maintain proper news bureaux staffed by career reporters in provincial areas. (…)
Most Bangkok-based reporters are uncomfortable travelling to provincial areas (…). Beyond Bangkok is a kind of hinterland, where nothing of much significance is deemed to occur. Thus a typical political desk of a Thai newspaper might have twelve to fifteen reporters, none of whom ever venture outside Bangkok, except either to accompany a politician (such as the prime minister) on a provincial visit or to cover an election.
From: “Politics and the Press in Thailand: Media Machinations“, by Duncan McCargo, 2000
There have been two other examples in recent years that highlight the problems of Bangkok-centricism: In the run-up to the 2010 red shirt protests, there were fundraising events in north-eastern Isaan and other activities – all reported exclusively by the foreign media. When the red shirt protests increased in attendance, persistence and duration, many Bangkokians were stunned and shocked - so were most of the local Thai media, as they had failed to monitor the activities of the red shirts in the provinces.
The other incident was during last year’s flood crisis, when large areas in and around Bangkok were inundated by Thailand’s worst natural disaster in some time. However, there were also floods elsewhere, like in the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen. But reports from other flood-hit locations were almost drowned out by the non-stop coverage of the crisis in the capital – so much so that it took a mental toll on Bangkok residents.
While residents outside the capital have several local media outlets like small-scale community papers or community radio stations, not much of that local coverage ever reaches the big media organizations in the capital. The internet does, however, provide a chance for grass-roots media in the provinces to reach a wider audience. One such example are our friends at The Isaan Record (who are coming back from a hiatus, by the way!) who have taken great strides in covering the stories and issues that matter in Thailand’s north-east.