Public's Watchdogs Become Dictator's Lapdogs

Dressed as children, members of Thailand's press corps mug for selfies recently with junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo: BBC Thai

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

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BANGKOK — In a country where military coups are common occurrences, the mass media serve as more than just victims of repression. All too often they serve as admirers, supporters, collaborators and even spin doctors for the junta.

Instead of holding the coup-makers feet to the fire, some media in Thailand instead serve to normalize what is an otherwise unpalatable, illegitimate and anti-democratic regime.

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For example, the kingdom’s best-selling tabloid, Thai Rath, often refers to the junta leader’s dictatorial power under Article 44 of its provisional charter using the Thai word for “special” (phisaet), which has a much more positive meaning than it does in English. (Think special occasions, special prices or special editions.) There’s nothing “special” about absolute dictatorial power, however. If there were any proper adjective for it, it should be “autocratic” or “illegitimate,” if not both.

Such practices may be subtle, but they’re definitely insidious, as they influence uncritical readers into accepting the junta’s power as normal, or even truly “special.”

I can also confirm that at one newspaper, by order of the editor, the term “military government” is effectively banned. And don’t forget, a number of newspapers effectively acted as coup apologists through their editorials in the aftermath of the May 2014 putsch, as some did right after the 2006 coup.

More blatant was a picture of many Government House beat reporters at a New Year party hosted by Thailand’s junta leader-cum-prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha last week. Partaking in such a “party” with the dictator is embarrassing enough, but the pictures showed these reporters elated, ecstatic and even flattered to be bamboozled in their group selfies with the dictator.

What’s more, many of these young journalists later changed into schoolchildren’s uniforms to greet Prayuth, mimicking the National Children’s Day celebration, a move that caught some junta leaders by surprise. The photos suggest these young reporters are a little too cozy and comfortable with the military dictator. (A foreign correspondent and former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand messaged me after he saw one of the pictures captured by BBC Thai, asking, “Seriously? The journos dressed as schoolchildren?” I answered affirmatively, which he described as “amazing.”)

 

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Reporters dress in school uniforms for young children and girl scout uniforms recently at a New Year's party with junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok.

If you think these mostly young reporters are embarrassed by such faux pas, you’d be wrong, and a number of newspapers even proudly published the photos with no hint of irony or self-awareness. Judging by these photos, I’m sure we can fully entrust these journalists to scrutinize the dictator and his regime.

 

Just Deserts?

This cozying up to power hasn't seemed to bring any benefits, at least not for the public or state of Thai journalism.

Barely a week went by after the scandalous photos were flaunted by the media themselves when the junta’s appointed charter drafters proposed writing media censorship into the next constitution, to be enabled whenever a state of emergency or martial law is invoked, thus extending such powers beyond the current junta’s lifespan.

I can’t just blame these young reporters for being chummy and clueless with a dictator when some of their seniors, which includes two past presidents of the Thai Journalists Association, the kingdom’s premier reporter’s guild, collaborated with the current military regime. First it was Pradit Ruangdit, then sitting president of the association, who soon after the coup accepted appointment to the now-defunct National Reform Council. Pradit said he did so to defend journalists’ interests.

Still working hard for the junta until now is Phatara Khamphitak, another former president of the association, who is a member of the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee.

Given the wide range of collaboration, support and admiration between a substantial number of media organizations and journalists with the military junta, it’s wrong to say Thai media were victims or opponents of the coup makers.

Some may have censored themselves out of fear, others did it out of support and admiration for military rule. There’s also many media who support Prayuth as the lesser of the two evils, compared to the Shinawatras. Yet others simply have forgotten or abandoned their roles as watchdogs and been reduced to lapdogs.

No matter what the reason, or however unknowingly, a good portion of Thailand’s media has helped normalize and legitimize a military dictatorship and perpetuated the vicious cycle of coups that stunts the development of a free and democratic Thailand.

Pravit Rojanaphruk can be followed on Twitter at @PravitR

 

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