By Nirmal Ghosh 16 February 2009
Originally published on 11 February 2009
Hours after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was voted into office, on the evening of Dec 15, I was at Bangkok’s sprawling Sanam Luang grounds to assess the reaction of the pro-democracy ‘red shirts’ who had been enraged by that morning’s developments.
When a Thai friend, a senior manager in a five-star hotel in Bangkok, found out where I was, she flew into a rage.
‘Why are you encouraging the red shirts? I hate these people. It is you foreign journalists who are encouraging them,’ she said to me on the phone.
I explained that I was just doing my job and observing the developments. But she grew angrier: ‘No, it is you foreign journalists who are giving Thailand a bad name and destroying tourism.’
Such a sentiment is quite widespread among Thais, especially those in Bangkok who follow the output of Manager Media.
The conglomerate’s ASTV and Outlook Channel are not simply news networks. Owned by Mr. Sondhi Limthongkul, co-leader of the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Manager Media functions as the PAD’s propaganda wing.
On the opposite side of the still-deep political divide, the pro-democracy ‘red shirts’ had their Truth Today TV show which this month morphed into D-Station. The D stands for ‘democracy’.
When the PAD seized Bangkok’s two airports on Nov 25 last year, dealing a severe blow to the economy in an attempt to force the government from power, then Associated Press journalist Sutin Wannabovorn, 61, had an epiphany.
To the amazement of other reporters on the scene, Mr. Sutin, who began his career in journalism with United Press International in 1978, went up on the PAD’s stage and dramatically announced his resignation and threw his support behind the PAD.
He said the foreign press had been biased against the PAD.
Subsequently Mr. Sutin has been working for Manager Media’s Thailand Outlook Channel.
In the fraught political atmosphere, there is little middle ground. There are splits at every level of Thai society, and even within families. Those who strive to stay in the middle are told they must take sides.
This applies to the foreign media as well; there is a growing chorus that if the foreign media reports on the red shirts or quotes former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, it must be in his pay.
‘These days, the story is not coming from real sources, it is coming from a group of people who are intentionally cooking it up,’ Mr. Sutin said in the course of a long discussion on the phone.
‘Some people who speak good English go to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand – like Jakrapob Penkair (a Thaksin loyalist). And lately they have commented on a very sensitive issue. A negative image of the royal family is appearing through websites. We know that this comes from a group of people with bad intentions. Why did The Economist print that about the monarchy? Because they got money!’
He was referring to a December 2008 issue of The Economist, which was not distributed in Thailand because of its cover story titled ‘The king and them: The royal role in Thailand’s chaos’.
When I asked Mr. Sutin whether he had any evidence that the foreign press was being paid, he admitted there was none.
‘We don’t have any evidence. But we know,’ he said. ‘I do believe the foreign media is paid to make a negative image of Thailand.’
He accused the BBC, the South China Morning Post and CNN of ‘blowing up’ the recent story about the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, hundreds of whom apparently died at sea after being towed out and left adrift on the high seas by the Thai navy.
A picture leaked to CNN, taken from a Thai boat as it towed a boatload of Rohingya refugees out to sea, had come from Thai military sources.
That was proof of a ‘conspiracy’ against Thailand, Mr. Sutin claimed.
His views, even as he admits there is no evidence to support them, are shared by many in the current ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ mood in Bangkok.
Some of the objections to coverage are par for the course, and part of the occupational hazard of being a foreign journalist – in any country.
But while the foreign media corps in Thailand does not go about its work in fear of being thrown into jail, the mounting hostility among some quarters is quite new.
My experience with my Thai friend was not an isolated one.
Another foreigner told of how he had to restrain his Thai friend from accosting BBC correspondent Jonathan Head when they encountered him in a supermarket.
Mr. Head has had three lese majeste complaints filed against him by a police colonel, and has been the subject of public tirades by the PAD.
PAD activists regularly castigate foreign journalists, saying they do not understand Thailand and have been bought off by Thaksin.
Several popular bloggers have received hate e-mail, or been warned by friends to be careful of what they post.
Even the mainstream Kom Chad Luek daily, which is owned by the Nation group, last week suggested that some foreign journalists appeared to have ‘conspired’ with one faction of Thais to present ‘negative news’ about Thailand.
Mr. Sutin’s ire is particularly directed at Thaksin loyalist Jakrapob Penkair, who is now a red shirt activist and D-Station talk show host.
Mr. Jakrapob, who is being prosecuted for lese majeste, had to step down from former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s Cabinet over the case. That the comments that got him into trouble were spoken at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand directed attention at the club and at the foreign media.
Asked for his reaction, Mr. Jakrapob said: ‘Accusations (like those of Mr. Sutin’s) come from the same problem – an incredibly narrow perspective.
‘Reality in Thailand has been blurred by organised propaganda inside the country.’