Thai media misquote sparks UN outrage

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 24, 2011

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) issued quite an angry press release Friday over what seems to be a misquotation in a Thai media outlet:

The United Nations has demanded an immediate retraction from the Thai ASEAN News Network for the serious misquotes of Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in a story that ran this week.

The story, which revolved around the flood situation in Thailand, falsely attributed quotes to Dr. Heyzer that criticized the government.

The reality: the United Nations has issued no statement criticizing the government, and has only offered support and assistance as Thailand faces the worse floods in more than six decades.

“These quotes are completely contrary to the solidarity and support that the United Nations is giving in Thailand,” said Dr. Heyzer. “The quotes are totally wrong and a poor reflection of journalist standards that are meant to reflect the truth.”

“United Nations Demands Retraction from Thai ASEAN News Network” (PDF), UNESCAP press release, October 21, 2011

Ouch! It takes a lot to get the United Nations to release an angry statement and it is definitely not the first time the Thai media outlets have botched something up (while some would say that Dr. Heyzer’s assessment in the last sentence may be overly optimistic).

The Thai ASEAN News Network (TAN) is a full English-language news channel and an offshoot of ASTV, the TV outlet of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – the ultra-nationalistic yellow shirts (by the way, ASTV is now off-air because of unpaid bills). Nevertheless, TAN claims to be “absolutely independent from ASTV”. We have previously highlighted one of their recent blunders here.

But what was the actual misquote? Many, including the fellow bloggers over at Thai Political Prisoners, hint at an article titled “UN Blames Govt for Poor Flood Management”. Some excerpts:

The United Nations has warned that natural disasters and floods in ASEAN are triggering a humanitarian crisis, claiming that no integrated effort to solve the turmoil will result in failure in tackling the after effects.

The Voice of America or VOA has reported that natural disasters in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines have killed more than 700 people already and affected eight million residents.(…)

UN ESCAP Executive Secretary Noeleen Heyzer said the UN is ready to give assistance to communities that have been affected by the flood crisis.

Meanwhile, Jerry Velasquez, senior regional coordinator for UN/ISDR Asia & Pacific pointed out that the main weakness to tackling the flood crisis in Thailand is the abundance of organizations to oversee water management.

He noted the Thai government has failed to streamline the eight agencies involved, resulting in policies going in different directions.

Velasquez said this problem is not only limited to Thailand but is being seen in other countries in the region. He further warned that this crisis may be just a prelude to future natural calamities.

“UN Blames Govt for Poor Flood Management”, Thai ASEAN News Network, last updated on October 20, 2011 – emphasis by me

While it is possible that TAN has edited the post several times (also possibly as a reaction to the press release), if there were any quotes by Heyzer being critical towards the Thai government, they are not there anymore. The majority of the story is lifted from Voice of America (VOA), including the quotes by Jerry Velasquez, senior regional coordinator with the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

However, the problem is the undoubtedly loaded and misleading headline TAN has given this piece, since this is of course what readers see first. That sets the mood for the rest of the article, no matter if something else in written in the text. So, in the end it is not necessarily exactly what was written or quoted that was misleading, but how the UN is portrayed here by the headline alone.

Is the UN right to demand a retraction because of a misquote? Not really, since there does not seem to be a misquote (anymore). Is the UN right to be angry because of of this TAN story? Absolutely! International organizations like the UN cannot appear to be partisan if they need to work with the authorities, especially during natural disasters. On the other hand, while it is important to criticize the federal and local governments for their failures in preventing and handling this year’s flood, sticking to the truth is something that many Thai media outlets like to neglect when it does not serve an editorial line.

UPDATE: TAN has meanwhile issued an apology:

To Whom It May Concern,

On Friday, October 21, 2011, the Thai-ASEAN News (TAN) Network broadcasted a news story entitled “UN Blames Govt for Poor Flood Management”. The story quoted UN ESCAP Executive Secretary Noeleen Heyzer for something she did not say. However, in actuality, the quote belonged to Jerry Velasquez, senior regional coordinator for UN/ISDR Asia & Pacific.

Once informed of the misquote, TAN Network corrected the story on the evening of Friday, October 21, 2011. The corrected version can still be found at http://www.tannetwork.tv/tan/ViewData.aspx?DataID=1048976.

There is no excuse for the mistake that was made. TAN Network, its management and its editorial team sincerely apologizes for the error that was made. However, we must stress that there were no ill intensions.

This incident has served as an important lesson to all of our staff. We apologize and will do our utmost to never allow this to happen again in the future.

Our sincere apologies.

The Thai-ASEAN News Network

Bangkok, Thailand

October 24, 2011

There’s is one slight contradiction though: the contested headline was still up earlier this morning and has been just changed, definitely after this post went up. But at least it is something commendable that a Thai media outlet actually does issue an apology and does not simply delete their traces.

Note: Thanks to all the Twitter users for pointers!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.