Freedom of thought distorted by party-run media
One of the keys to sustaining any political order is talk, or, more precisely, constant talk in a definite direction through half-truths, so noise will be absorbed into the thick air of propaganda.
And the most powerful channels to spread constant talk are through mass media, especially television, an ideal mechanism for one-way communication to the masses. During its supremacy, the Thaksinites consciously and cleverly made the most of their television networks to propagate their platforms repeatedly through a heavy reliance on half-truths. For example, the professional demagogues would diligently take turns to stress their winning results in elections, without mentioning their victory was a product of populist giveaways at the expense of market mechanisms, financial discipline and social order.
Their standard logic was that once they had won the elections overwhelmingly, they could legitimately do practically anything under the disguise of a mandate from the people in a democracy. If anyone should be displeased with their policies and actions, just sit and wait until the next general election to vote them down. Democracy was thus a game of musical chairs to plunder the land in ways that the winning party deemed appropriate. Such waiting might just be too late when the issue at hand was the huge, fundamentally flawed rice-pledging scheme which was used to launder scarce national financial resources from one pocket to another in a score of complicated processes beyond the imagination of honest people.
No doubt, professional demagogues often got away with their one-dimensional oratories spoken freely and endlessly on their own television networks day in and day out, and sometimes carried over to other media channels, precisely because such half-truths were often uncritically treated as “news”. The opposition party was too weak to meaningfully challenge its political opponents in ordinary parliamentary sessions, while the mainstream press found it increasingly costly and tiresome to go against the grain.
In this context, a rather damaging side effect must have been the unwillingness of the mainstream press to clearly distinguish the voices of deliberate propaganda from legitimate sources of news. For this reason, the professional demagogues had been unwittingly conferred a status as news sources, paving the way for their noise to conveniently creep into the headlines of the day. Doubtlessly, this very phenomenon acted as a primal force to sustain a self-serving political order, possibly engineered by some invisible hands keen in the politics of culture.
Luckily, the occasional voice of reason from various sectors did not go unheard. The Prayut Chan-o-cha regime is now pursuing a score of legal cases against the rice-pledging scheme culprits, including Yingluck Shinawatra, who was alleged to have neglected her duty in her capacity as prime minister. At stake are monumental financial compensation packages, criminal punishments, and the prospect of being banned from politics. With frequent "attitude adjustment" sessions enforced by the current military regime, in the past 17 months or so we have heard much less misguided rhetoric, but there are signs that such talk will appear more frequently on television networks with political strings attached, because the imperatives of such pending legal cases could melt the foundations of their very existence.
The ongoing half-baked rhetoric has presently shifted to another level of deliberation. The standard positions now contend that the rice-pledging scheme was a central policy officially endorsed and announced by the previous government. For these reasons, even though things might have gone wrong with the operation of this policy, they must be considered legitimate, innocent mistakes, and, therefore, those concerned with this policy execution should be immune from legal sanctions. To be sure, the one-sided exploitation of the red-shirt television mentioned above is just one recent example that demonstrates party-run media are politically manipulated mechanisms that are not healthy for democracy. Certainly, the blue- and yellow-shirt media might be just as guilty, each in its own way. And, to complete the list, the green-shirt media, including the compulsory TV pools, could certainly be added as well.
Since political interest groups are allowed to run their own television networks as their mouthpieces, Thai political life has been brewed under the smokescreens of endless informational and cultural confusion as each group is out there stubbornly uttering one-dimensional talk to defend and enlarge its vested interests without regard to the common rules of democracy, where political parties should subordinate themselves to the checks and balances of a larger social system, such as the judicial system and the independent, professional media. In a functional democracy, the raison d’etre of the independent, professional media is precisely to report, review, re-evaluate, and reflect on social policies and affairs, especially those conducted by political parties. But when such political groups run their own media, the role of the independent, professional media in doing such duties is directly compromised.
When a politically motivated group can operate its own powerful media on a day-to-day basis, they sooner or later act as apologists for any wrongdoings committed by the party cadres. For this reason, the concerned parties will see no need to listen to any voices contrary to their positions. For instance, once a given party fails in parliamentary battles, they will just resort to their media to continue their lost struggles outside the parliament. This suggests that the sporting spirit of compromise breaks down. The spirit of democracy is thus betrayed by the operation of party-run media. At this stage of politics, Thai democracy would have a much brighter future should the dominant political groups of any colour voluntarily stop operating their own media mouthpieces directly as such enterprises have, so far, largely served as bottlenecks to distort, detour, and derail our proper democratic development.
So long as any media reform and reconciliation forums do not have the courage to confront this basic issue, they are doomed to a systemic failure because politically-linked media have been intoxicating our political environment to such an extent that for almost a decade no fresh and free thought intended for the public good could ever have its own space for more than a second. While arguments to the contrary no doubt abound, without this structural change, there will be no end in sight to our coloured polarisations.
Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and a founding programme director in the social sciences and humanities at the Thailand Research Fund. He has published 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture, and society in Asia, America, and Europe, and by Unesco. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.
Former dean at Thammasat University
Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and programme director at the Thailand Research Fund. He is the author of 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture and society printed in Asia, America, and Europe, and by Unesco. Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email : email@example.com