Author’s Note: This article was adapted from a talk on media freedom in Thailand given at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand on Nov 12. The event was organized by the embassies of Canada and Great Britain and he would like to thank both Canadian Ambassador Sarah Taylor and British Ambassador Brian Davidson for the invitation to speak.
It used to be that Thailand’s ‘gate keepers,’ be it the state or the mainstream mass media, were effective in filtering any negative news about the Thai monarchy.
With the proliferation of the use of social media and the demand to reform the monarchy institution on the streets, Thailand’s parallel worlds of what is not said and said about the monarchy is on a collision course.
Think about North Korea where some people yearn for alternative news about the three-generation of their ‘Dear Leaders’ despite people being forced fed with positive-only news about their leaders.
In Thailand, the daily 8pm royal news aired on all TV channels is no longer effective. Critical discussions about the monarchy have gained traction over the past half a decade despite the Thai mainstream mass media doing its best to only feed the public with positive-only news about the monarchy.
On social media, Facebook group The Royalist Market Place has nearly 2 million members discussing all things critical and negative about the monarchy, some factual, others more like rumours or baseless allegations. They have created an alternative virtual world where royalists are not welcomed.
France-based exiled historian and monarchy critic Somsak Jeamteerasakul has over 718,000 followers on Twitter while Scottish critic of Thai monarchy Andrew MacGregor Marshall enjoys 261,000 followers on the same social media platform.
The conservative Thai gatekeepers have failed as there are more than one gates now. The flood on critical news and information about the Thai monarchy is simply uncontrollable.
Young Thais critical of the monarchy have created a parallel universe which has become increasingly different from ultra-royalist deep reverence to the institution to the point of near hysteria.
Where does the Thai mainstream mass media stand amidst the call for change and reforms? What’s the media’s role when the two sides live in their own respective bubbles unwilling to try to understand the existence of the other Thailand with sincerity and just shouting at one another?
One thing for sure is that, reporters’ main job is to report, not to censor.
The past three months saw the mainstream Thai press grapple with a new reality. They realized that many young Thais, some as young as 15, want a more open and honest society where critical remarks about the monarchy is no longer consigned to the private world of gossip and rumour mongering among trusted friends.
They want to be discussed about it openly without having to go to prison under the lese majeste law and they want the mainstream press to adapt.
The mainstream Thai press, as traditional gatekeepers of what’s fit to print or report, has tried to become less coy or afraid and have at least mentioned or described the elephant in the room to an extent over the past month or so.
It’s still a far cry from what the foreign press reports about the Thai king but one can note how the Thai press realized that if they don’t adapt, they could become irrelevant, like a telex machine or a shortwave radio cosigned to collect dust or thrown away.
In this time of risky adaptation, the Thai press should not seek to be a propaganda tool of any political side. Already, there are too many fanboys and fangirls on both sides of the political divide on social media.
Our primary job is not to serve our organization or oneself but to serve the public, to act as an honest mirror to reflect what’s happening with high fidelity as faithfully as possible. Our role is to ask uncomfortable and complex questions to the powers that be.
Also, the media’s role is to try to seek a solution amidst deep divides on both sides, facilitating various parties to deliberate a common future for Thailand. Be a lamp and shed light on the possible paths towards a common and peaceful solution for Thailand that takes all parties’ aspirations and fears into consideration.
Some of what we see may be complex or even ironic, but that’s the job of the press to present and disentangle these difficult facts and inconvenience truth as much as possible.
The major challenge is upon the mainstream Thai press. The time is now.
The passage of time can judge a person’s character. Distance may gauge a racing horse’s ability. For the press, it’s a national crisis that is testing its mettle.
The call of duty is loud. The choice facing the mainstream Thai press when it comes to reporting about the Thai monarchy is clear – adapt to a new world with higher expectations, or become irrelevant and be consigned to history.