Thailand: International media under fire
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Thailand: International media under fire

Thailand’s elites object to their portrayal in the global press, writes Asia Sentinel’s Haseenah Koyakutty

Although nearly a month has passed since the Thai government forcefully ended the Bangkok protests by the Red Shirt followers of deposed Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the conflict persists. Now the Thai authorities and segments of Thai society have opened up a new flank. They are on a collision course with the foreign media.

The elite, like the foreign media, is a diverse group. But a few patterns can be discerned in this latest battle cry, which is dominating the discourse among Bankok’s urban middle class. First, they allege, the foreign media was negligent in reporting on the so-called Men in Black who appeared to be responsible for a major share of the Red Shirts’ violence, thereby rendering the movement anything but peaceful. Worse, the foreign media – Red romantics who sympathize with the underdogs or the powerless – were complicit in the violence that ensued through negligent coverage that favored the Red Shirts.

Second, the critics say, the foreign media, specifically large television networks with an international reach such as CNN and BBC, report conflicts through western eyes, fitting this particular one into a standard third world archetype: A military-backed government using force on unarmed demonstrators. The western reporting, they say, also ignores cultural differences. Put another way, the foreign media do not understand Thailand.

CNN and the BBC are easy public targets given their global impact, especially during a crisis or with breaking news that may portray the unpleasant side of a semi-open or controlled society. The outcry is therefore not unusual. What was unusual, however, is the vitriol hurled at certain media outlets or specific reporters.

“Dan Rivers of CNN was the most vilified during the recent crackdown by a section of the Thai public who expressed their anger in social networking sites, newspapers and on Thai television,” said Marwaan Macan-Markar, President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT).

The club and its correspondents were excoriated when the FCCT recently organized a series of talks and photo exhibitions of the unrest. At one particularly raucous session packed with trendy “Facebook” Thais as well as long-time foreign residents, Sumet Jumsai, a leading Thai architect and social commentator and one of four key speakers invited to discuss the foreign media’s reporting, described them as “intellectually bankrupt, presenting a caricature as hacks who can be found along Bangkok’s saucy Soi Cowboy, lacking both taste and curiosity.