Bracing the media for battle

Thai journalists covering the violence in the southernmost provinces develop particular skills to properly report on the region

Bangkok Post
Sunday, July 26, 2009

By Supara Janchitfah

Lee (not his real name), looked emotional when two army officers came up to him and asked him to delete the film he had shot outside a special taskforce camp in Narathiwat province, where Imam Yapa Kaseng was found dead in March 2008 after he was allegedly tortured by officials. Lee is a Korean journalist who cannot speak Thai and has a limited fluency in English.

Through an interpreter he explained it would be "complicated" to delete the film, but the two army officials could not understand why that should be. In retrospect it seems likely he was stalling for time. At any rate, Lee walked back to our rented media van while the ranking officer called a stringer at a local television station to come to the army camp.

Before long a man who introduced himself as a journalist told us to make it clear to the Korean that he must delete the film, or else he would do it.

It appeared that this "journalist" had a special connection with the soldiers, as he was speaking on their behalf and came immediately after he was called.

During lengthy negotiations over the film Lee became quite animated, and finally took the film out of his camera and destroyed it as the soldiers looked on, obviously upset themselves.

At that very moment I knew what had happened -- the Korean journalist had loaded the camera with an empty tape when he went back to the van. The spectacle where he destroyed the film was just for show.

I called everybody to get ready to go and we quickly left the area.

The incident reflects on two matters; the Korean journalist was well prepared to work in a conflict area and knew what to do in order to both survive and get the story out.

At the other end of the spectrum, the local Thai journalist was forced into a symbiotic relationship with the authorities. He paid for whatever slanted information he got by being a "good" journalist in the eyes of the authorities. In this case that meant helping the officials to try and put a muzzle on the Korean journalist.

HAZARDOUS OCCUPATION

More than five years after the re-emergence of violence in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand in January 2004, more than 3,000 people have been killed and many thousands more injured. The casualties include a number of journalists working in the area.

A Thai Rath journalist, Chalee Boonsawat, was killed in August last year in a double bombing outside a restaurant in Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province. Another journalist affiliated with Modern Nine TV was among the 33 people injured in the attack.

The first bomb, believed to have been planted on a motorcycle, caused minimal damage.The second took a tragic toll on on lookers, police and journalists who rushed to the scene after the first explosion.

In another incident outside a railway station in Yala province, Ahmad Ramansiriwong, a journalist affiliated with the Daily News newspaper and Issara News Centre (INC), was injured as he and a friend from Channel 7 TV recorded policemen examining a bomb on a motorcycle. The bomb exploded, injuring the two journalists as well as onlookers and police officers. Ahmad was hospitalised for 25 days.

"I want to tell all journalists covering southern issues to be very careful. [Before approaching a bomb scene] We should wait until officials examine the bomb and cut off the telephone frequencies to prevent a second bomb from being detonated. We should gauge the situation, whether it is safe enough to do our job in the area," said Ahmad. He added that pictures of a bomb should be taken from about 100 metres away.

Apart from physical violence, journalists working in the deep South face many constraints and must be sensitive to the local cultural and religious environment.

Khao Sod newspaper journalist Rosida Pusu is a Muslim woman from the South. As such she is held to a separate standard by the community she reports on. She said she must consider many factors when covering a story that is related to religion, especially a religion other than Islam.

"I must be very careful not to write anything that could lead Muslim people to become interested in some other faith," she said, adding that reporting on occasions such as a traditional festival event is alright, but not elaborating on the opinions or beliefs of people who practice different religions.

She also must "behave" herself when interviewing groups such as religious teachers. Nevertheless, Ms Rosida is keenly aware of the crucial role journalists play in shaping public opinion. Noting that she cannot please everyone, she said she would continue to do her job professionally and to allow all concerned parties to have a voice in her news reports.

Around the world, a high commitment to this code of ethics is impressed upon all journalists. In a handbook entitled "Conflict sensitive Journalism", Ross Howard states that professional journalists do not set out to reduce conflict. "They seek to present accurate and impartial news. But it is often through good reporting that conflict is reduced."

In the same book, Mr Howard pointed out that for citizens in a conflict to make well-informed decisions and perhaps resolve their conflict, good journalism is essential. This means accuracy, impartiality and responsibility, added Mr Howard.

SPECIAL SKILLS NEEDED

But is it enough to be a good journalist in a conflict area, where even the most professional reporter might be targetted by one side or the other or caught in a crossfire?

In his book, A survival guide for journalists, Peter McIntyre pointed out that the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on journalists, media organisations and all relevant public authorities to respect the International Code of Practice for the Safe Conduct of Journalism. One of these practices is that media organisations and, where appropriate, state authorities shall provide risk-awareness training for those journalists and media workers who are likely to be involved in assignments where dangerous conditions prevail or may be reasonably expected.

Prakorn Puengnet is affiliated with Krungthep Thurakit newspaper and at present is also in charge of overseeing the INC's Southern Desk. INC was established by the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) to both facilitate news reporting in the South and to develop the special skills needed for working journalists in the area. Mr Prakorn said these skills include patience and courage, and added that good cooperation among all journalists in the area is also necessary.

A graduate of Pattani province's Prince of Songkla University, he said his knowledge of Southern issues became much more profound when he began to cover news stories in the troubled region, and that his experience with INC had enriched him as a journalist.

"When I was first covered the story of Tanyong Limo village in Narathiwat -- where two marine officers were killed in September 2005 -- I learned a great deal of the issues and the way of life of the people there," he said.

After spending some time in the area, he found out that some pieces of news were reported inaccurately. For example some groups were reported to be part of an active southern insurgency movement, but it wasn't supported by the evidence.

The Bangkok political journalist said his understanding of national politics has helped in covering the South.

"We must learn that all issues are related; violence is not a stand-alone issue," he said.

It is not the direct duty of journalists to intercede in events in the South, but it has sometimes happened that they have been asked to play such a role. In one instance, "we became a mediator between the locals and the authorities," said Mr Prakorn, raising the issue of a conflict between locals and the Na Pradu tambon administration organisation (TAO) in Pattani province. The TAO approached the INC to try to arrange a dialogue with people who had been affected by a TAO scheme.

Since its inception in August 2005, INC has been revamped many times, said Mr Prakorn. At present there are five full-time journalists working at the centre, a far cry from its beginnings when the staff was drawn on a temporary basis from participating newspapers and news agencies in Bangkok.

He noted that "local journalists have different skills compared to those from Bangkok", and admitted the prevalence of violence does hinder news coverage. Guidelines could be helpful for both local and big-city journalists, he said.

Other journalists who have been working in the area raised similar points. They try to minimise the risks by adequate preparation.

Lekha Kliengklao, also from INC, said: "I need to study the issues and surrounding information before heading to an area."

Ms Rosida, who has been working in the South for 12 years, said "We must be fast in covering each issue, but at the same time we must cross-check information before submitting our reports."

King-oua Laohong of the Bangkok Post acknowledged that Thai journalists often may not have enough training before being assigned to the southernmost provinces.

"We had no special training when we first set up INC. It's been an on-the-job training process,"she said, adding that journalists who aren't Muslim and can't speak the local dialect must work harder than the local journalists. Understanding the culture and religion is also a plus.

"I think learning the language helps in easing many troubles and breaks down some barriers," said King-oua. She also advised journalists to make return visits to villagers they have contacted, as this will build trust. "Journalists should demonstrate that they not only want to extract information from the locals, but also want to befriend them."

Violence is a fact of life in the deep South, but many committed journalists are still drawn to the area. Besides, said King-oua, "There are many good things waiting to be discovered in each village."