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Censorship in Thailand Part 1: The Media

Censorship in one form or another has been around as long as there have been civilizations. To some, it’s a benevolent service aimed at protecting the innocent; to others it’s nothing less than totalitarian mind control restricting freedom of expression. Certain recent events in Thailand have roused Naked Farang to take a closer look at censorship here in the land of smiles in a three-part series that will cover the media, arts and entertainment, and the Internet.

The freedom of the press and the media in general is a noble cause for which many have fought, been imprisoned and even died. Nobody can deny that a truly democratic nation has nothing to fear from news media freedom. But is there a line, and who draws it?

One of my earliest memories of Thailand was waiting around for a train in Hua Lamphong station. As my friend and I wandered around the busy concourse, a newspaper stand caught our eye. On clear view to one and all was the most gruesome front page I have ever seen anywhere on my extensive travels. Pictures of three naked and disembowelled humans filled the entire front page with sensationalistic gore. The extremely graphic pictures left nothing to the imagination and were a 20,000 volt shock to my Western-conditioned sense of decency.

I assume they were murder victims, although I can’t confirm this as I didn’t buy the paper. What is certain is that they were human beings and, according to my Western values, deserving of some dignity even if the empty and abused shells now on public display no longer housed their souls.

I had experienced blatant disregard for the sanctity of the dead in India and Egypt among other places, yet this was dragging morbid fascination down to a new level and openly challenging my moral values. The nice shiny taxis outside Don Mueang Airport that had been my first impression of Bangkok had mistakenly led me to believe that Thailand was somehow more…well…more civilized than this.

Having grown up in England, I was used to sanitised news. Even the wars that were routinely beamed into our living rooms on the evening news spared us the unacceptable images of death so that we became desensitised and weren’t put off our evening meals.

Censorship certainly exists in Thailand, but it has continued to baffle me with double standards over the years. TV stations will blur the screen whenever someone is smoking a cigarette, yet the news stations and gutter press regularly show grisly pictures of car crash fatalities or murder victims in graphic detail. These days, however, in either a token show of respect for the dead or a sham sense of decency towards the living, small sections of the pictures will be lightly pixelated to present a charade of moral decorum.

The popular Thai media’s appetite for sensation is insatiable. Thailand’s most lurid tabloids regularly display front page pictures that are specifically chosen to shock the perversely curious into buying their rag, and it seems that anything goes as long as it’s sensationalistic enough.

With blatant disregard for the their feelings, rape victims are often abused a second time as a bevy of baying hacks crowd around taking pictures of the innocent victim pointing at her captured violator to satisfy ignorantly insensitive male police requirements.

It’s a strange police and journalistic trait in Thailand that similarly has criminals re-enacting their crimes or people pointing at victims for the media circus. The most obscene example that comes to mind was of a bomb victim with limbs missing and a policeman standing next to the still burning body and pointing at it just in case we missed it.

Just lately, however, it hasn’t been the gutter press but rather the TV news that has been under criticism. Somchai Charoen-amnuaysuk, Inspector General of Thailand’s Social Development and Human Security Ministry, was quoted in Thailand’s English language tabloid the Daily XPRESS as calling for stricter censorship of TV news. He referred in particular to a recent video that had been repeatedly aired and which showed a man killing his girlfriend and a security guard.

Such scenes are all too commonplace on Thai TV news, and other recent examples include a man shooting a student, and another in which a group of teenagers viciously mount a prolonged attack on a 16-year-old boy. Somchai pointed out that people, especially impressionable teens, will often mimic what they see – a fact that was borne out in the recent killing of a Bangkok taxi driver by a young boy who had been unable to separate fact from fantasy after playing the crime-driven video game, Grand Theft Auto IV.

However, Somchai’s baffling answer to this problem is not to censor the news stations from showing such wanton violence. The Daily XPRESS quoted him as saying, “Scenes like these should be accompanied by text warning the audience that the violent action is both morally wrong and illegal”. Oh well, that ought to do it then. If the graphic pictures on cigarette packets can’t prevent people from smoking, what good does Somchai expect patronising warnings on the TV news bloodfest to do?

While I am wholly against censorship of the arts, and I fully support the freedom of the press, what justification other than the gratification of some primal bloodlust can there be for showing in such graphic detail accidents, murders and violence in the news media?

Reporters should be at liberty to expose wrongdoings in the true spirit of news media freedom, but there is no place in a civilized society for sensationalistic images and gutter journalism. As such, Naked Farang proposes that an independent news media agency should set guidelines that support news media freedom but with moral rather than political self-censorship.

Paul Snowdon – February 9, 2009

Related Article: Hide and Seek with Nanny - Censorship Part 2 (arts & entertainment)
Related Article: Cyber Vigilantes - Censorship Part 3 (the Internet)

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