In the South, the media, too, must think outside the box
Published on March 28, 2008 - Just recently a couple of dozen reporters based in the three southernmost provinces came together in Pattani, along with senior members of the Thai Journalists' Association, to brainstorm on the ongoing violence in the restive region and how to better cover it.
Top security officials were invited to make their case, particularly over how they perceived the media's coverage of the conflict in the region. Naturally, they asked that their side of the story be heard and that the media be more sympathetic to the challenges confronting them. According to these officials, the media has a role to play in reconciling the differences between the people of the Malay-speaking, Muslim-majority South and the rest of the country. The reporters agreed.
What they couldn't agree on was who, if anybody, should have a monopoly on defining what constitutes reconciliation - or in this case, reconciliatory news stories.
Like any government, the current administration and its bureaucratic machines claim that they have the facts. And because they have the monopoly on these facts, they are the ones who, supposedly, know what's best for the country. And so they issue official lines to the media to be presented to the public. What bothered many journalists was how these facts have been presented. They made it clear that the authorities must share the burden, but essentially agreed that it was part of their responsibility to present accurate and well-rounded stories.
But still, the question remains: should anybody have a monopoly on shaping the context of the story? For too long, the way the deep South was understood had been shaped by the state. For the officials, the answer is clear-cut and simple: the country is facing a new generation of Malay-Muslim militants who embrace a false teaching of Islam and are taught a wrong version of history - the version that says the Malay-speaking South has always been a part of Thailand, even before the world came up with this relatively new notion called the "nation-state". Moreover, one should not deviate from this notion because, in doing so, one would be accused of adding to the problem instead of being part of the solution. What the state didn't say was that a new can of worms would be opened and they would be left to clean up the mess.
Reporters at the workshop admitted that being too close to the official line had taken its toll on them and they were concerned about their safety. Many said they had alienated their audience, particularly the Malay Muslims, who make up about 80 per cent of the people in the three southernmost provinces. Some even experienced verbal abuse from Muslims, who see them as a government mouthpiece.
It would be different, of course, if the Malay-Muslim public trusted the state. For years, the question of the legitimacy of the Thai state in the historical Malay-speaking homeland has loomed over the region. Since this wave of violence erupted in January 2004, more than 3,000 people have been killed.
According to the journalists, one way to get around this - to not be perceived as a mouthpiece of the state - is to call a spade a spade. Specifically, they asked that editors in Bangkok do less in terms of "sexing up" their stories and instead permit more human-interest stories. For most problems, acknowledging shortcomings is the first step toward a solution. Whether Thai journalists can think outside the box and withstand the wrath of state officials, on the other hand, remains to be seen.
Unlike conflicts elsewhere, there is no message from the insurgents. While the region is not short of critics, all agree that news reporting on the South would be elevated to a higher plane if the opposing forces designated their own spokesmen. But this won't happen anytime soon. Southern Thailand is not Aceh at its worst or Mindanao in its current predicament. One can't just pick up the phone and get the "other side of the story".
Because of the ongoing violence, Thailand's South is the most studied region in the country. For the most part, narratives on the region are presented essentially as sub-narratives of Thailand as a whole. The Thai media have been reluctant to acknowledge that a disturbing portion of the southern population have not come to terms with the country's notion of nation-state - because in doing so, they risk being seen as sympathetic to the people who, in the words of the state, have been misled by the false teaching of history and who embrace the wrong brand of Islam.
The challenge, it seems, is not just for the state to come up with a more realistic explanation as to why generation after generation question the legitimacy of the Thai state in the deep South. The media, too, must learn to think outside the box.