Respect the role of journalists
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Respect the role of journalists

The government has been raising eyebrows recently with its approach to journalists. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's supposedly comical spraying of sanitiser on reporters in an apparent attempt to avoid some tough questions last month was a memorable spectacle. This past week, he told a reporter to uncross her legs during a press conference at Government House. The reporter was barred from Government House -- allegedly not for her lack of good manners but her behaviour on social media. Feel a bit like school?

What garnered less attention was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' new guidelines for issuing media and official visas to foreign journalists and correspondents based in Thailand. Notice of stricter regulations went out on Feb 3 -- the group worst affected appears to be Germans. Rules were tightened up after the 2014 coup, and the hardest hit were photographers, who already have a tough time making a living. Additionally, Freedom House ranked Thailand 30/100 in 2021, and judged it "not free".

The number of hoops which foreign journalists must jump through in the kingdom has increased. The most notable change for those wishing to apply for or extend a media visa is that the portfolio of "reports" they have to submit has risen from five to 10.

The term "report" is used in the guidelines and should be challenged for its somewhat simplistic view of journalism. Not all journalists write reports -- there are also camera operators, photographers or documentary makers, to name a few. Others are editors, the unsung heroes who usually don't get bylines or credits. It gets problematic when they have to find 10 reports they supposedly "wrote" -- they have to get samples of the countless stories they edit each year confirmed by their organisation. Some applicants have been asked for translations of their articles, which can be expensive and arduous. Still, bona fide journalists will take the punch and soldier on.

This all becomes more of a concern if it affects reporting on important issues in Southeast Asia. This newspaper would like to remind its readers of the importance of Thailand as a regional media hub. If we look at what's going on next door in Myanmar, at least 40 journalists have been arrested since the Feb 1 coup for what the junta calls "provoking unrest". The situation there highlights the importance of having a base next door -- Thailand -- where seasoned reporters can work safely without the risk of being shot at, killed or imprisoned.

Some of the best television professionals and correspondents in the world are based in Bangkok. They cover not just Southeast Asia, but hot spots in West Asia and the Middle East, including Syria and Afghanistan. Their lives and logistics have been made tougher by Thai law defining personal protective equipment, including flak jackets, as "military materiel" and therefore "illegal". This gear can help keep them alive amid dangerous situations, and is also often a requirement of their company insurance policies.

But Thailand should also get a lot of credit. It has been vital to good coverage of the region in the post-Vietnam War era, and remains one of the most important reporting hubs in Asia -- reporting not just politics but development, business, commerce, the arts. It was assumed that Thailand's importance as a media hub would decline after the United States embargo was lifted from Vietnam in 1994, and when Cambodia finally opened up in the early 1990s, and when Myanmar began changing course a decade ago. But Thailand's media status has not been eroded, and this remains to its credit and advantage.

Officials here are often too defensive about media reports, fretting that only negative things get reported. The government would do much better to concern itself with accurate reporting because Thailand is also, unfortunately, a hub for unaccredited trolls who spread fake news and have been proven to be funded by malign foreign governments.

Unfortunately, these trolls have gained traction in parts of the traditional Thai media, on social media, and even in conspiracy-minded parts of the Senate and higher reaches of the government. The false information they have pedalled is quite serious, and will get no oxygen here. Singapore -- historically at war with foreign media -- seems in recent years to have developed a better understanding of the importance of a quality media sector that disseminates accurate news. The alternative is a misinformed population, which is in nobody's interest.

Trolls generally set out to disrupt. Activists bashing keyboards thousands of miles away seldom fret about getting things wrong. Are they held to account? Do they publish corrections? A journalist who only achieved 70% accuracy -- this is being generous to many trolls and activists -- would be fired. Media serves a vital public service, and must hold itself to account when it makes mistakes. The government meanwhile would do better making sure it has the right information merchants in its sights.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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