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Thursday, June 11, 2009
Shocking pix need a call for moral outrage
On Sunday June 7, we were shocked by the photo of actor David Carradine in Thai Rath, the country's biggest and most influential newspaper.
The next day, we were left speechless by the photo of a dead teenager, with two gunshot wounds oozing blood on to her barely covered breast in Khaosod, Thai Rath's rival newspaper.
Carradine's hanging body was shadowed to show restraint. In the same vein, the tip of the teenagers' breast was covered with a small strip, with her ID photo alongside.
Imagine the pain of their families.
According to the print media's code of conduct, it is unethical to present news or photos which violate the human dignity of people in the news. The press are required to strictly protect the rights of children, women and the underprivileged and prohibited from presenting material that violates the public's sense of decency.
Seems like few care.
Sad, isn't it?
Maybe we should not feel sad about the state of Thai journalism. We should feel mad. Sadness does not change a thing. Anger can.
And we should not direct our anger at the papers involved only. We also should question our own lack of moral outrage which allows the mass media to get away with murder. Not only with the use of gory pictures of fatal accidents and dead people, but also for playing God by judging who is right and wrong in the news while perpetuating ultra-nationalism, racism and gender prejudices which further deepens social inequality and injustice.
Such is the power of the pen.
But that power can be prevented from being abused. No, not by the press associations which advocate what should be but have no control over what is. Effective pressure for change comes from the readers.
No, I am not passing the buck. I am talking about what has actually happened in Thai media circles during the past three decades.
Back then, the use of gory photos was pervasive. The news coverage of rapes and murders was graphic, even pornographic, while readily revealing the personal identities of the victims. But because many readers felt angry and showed it to those news media organisations, things started to change.
Credit must also go to women's right groups. First, they strongly attacked such inhumane and unethical practices and their critiques were enthusiastically covered by the corps of women's page journalists who were fed up with their papers' sex crime reporting. Next, they paid top editors a visit, organised gender sensitivity news writing for young reporters, and worked with media organisations on producing related handbooks.
Yet it is the moral outrage of the readers which the media must ultimately submit to.
Who would imagine the powerful Thai Rath issuing any public apologies to anybody? But that was what happened some years back when it published a photo of the near-naked dead body of a rape victim.
Readers had the phones ringing off the hook with their angry calls. Shocked by such an unprecedented show of public anger, the paper issued a public apology in its editorial the next day. Its internal investigations also revealed what is true at other newspapers' newsdesks, a constant push and pull between the hawk and dove front-page editors - and what ensues depends on who is in charge that day.
Admittedly, we still see gory pictures now and then in the papers but they are not as pervasive as before. Revealing the identity of the victims has also become rare.
Why the resurgence of this heartless practice, then? Why near silence at home about the Carradine and teenager photos? Has it anything to do with the economic crunch and political upheavals which shut our hearts, our minds while intensifying our killer instincts and individualistic escapism?
The people who decided to run those photos face a much simpler question: why do to others what you would not do to your own sons and daughters?
Look in the mirror and answer.