Violence and the media

15 04 2009

A large number of mainstream media and political commentators, discussing recent events in Bangkok, have lauded the Abhisit government for handling what are usually characterized as “violent demonstrations” (see, e.g., the US State Department’s statement) with minimal use of violent military force and thus limited loss of life.

The statements made to this effect (see, e.g., PPT, “What the Washington analysts are saying,” 15 April 2009) are misleading in a variety of ways. First, there is as of yet no definitive account of how many people were actually killed or may yet die of injuries sustained in the military’s crackdown. The official figure on the number of people injured is at least 120, most of these from among the demonstrators (BBC News, “Army pressure ends Thai protest,” 14 April 2009), surely a significant toll, and there is as yet no certainty of how many of these-some reportedly in hospital in serious condition-may die. Moreover, the official government-asserted death toll of two persons (from a clash at Nang Lerng) is not consistent with a variety of other reports. At least one injured red shirt demonstrator, for example, was reported to have died of wounds sustained during the military’s attack at Din Daeng on Monday morning (Bangkok Post, “Reds in retreat,” 14 April 2009). Further, the claims by red shirts that at least six demonstrators were killed in those attacks, with the bodies being hauled away by the military (Bangkok Pundit, “It Begins,” 13 April 2009), have yet to be investigated or disproved-they are simply rejected out-of-hand by most of the major media and the Thai government, the latter scarcely a disinterested source. The D Station TV channel that originally broadcast the claim of six killed, on the other hand, had its satellite link cut by the Thai government – an interesting way for its claims to be proven “false” (Bangkok Pundit, “Media Battle,” 15 April 2009). Until there is a full and impartial investigation of events, it would be more honest of the media to report that at least two or three people have been confirmed dead with considerably more possible once all is said and done. It is not yet clear that there was “minimal loss of life.”

Second, as is too frequently the case, major media refuse to differentiate between violence-a term best used for attempts to harm human beings-and property damage. That red shirt demonstrators engaged in both of these is not in doubt (e.g., throwing molotov cocktails at military and attempting to attack Abhisit in his car), but it is also clear from the government’s own claimed death toll (and injury toll for soldiers) that there was comparatively little of the former, more of the latter on the part of the red shirts. Moreover, military units that fired on or assaulted demonstrators-often demonstrators who were at most engaging in property damage or general civil disobedience-are themselves guilty of violence, and there was demonstrably far more violence of this sort from the military than from the red shirts. Military attacks on demonstrators engaged primarily in civil disobedience and property damage would best be characterized as acts of state violence against civilians (even if in some cases those civilians were involved in illegal activities), not acts of governmental restraint in confronting violent demonstrators.

Third, it is conveniently ignored in most of the major media commentary that the beginning of the process in which the demonstrations became uglier was the attacks launched by blue shirt vigilantes in Pattaya against red shirt protestors (Nirmal Ghosh, “Live: Flashpoint Pattaya,” Straits Times, 11 April 2009). It was after this-some claim in response to their perception of endangerment from violent attacks by military-backed groups-that red shirt demonstrators upped their own levels of militance and violence, arguably in self-defense in some cases. In addition, in the case of Pattaya, the major media again largely neglected to differentiate between violence and civil disobedience or property damage. The red shirts unquestionably engaged in an act of civil disobedience-shutting down the ASEAN summit meeting-and even engaged in property damage in doing so, smashing windows. It was the blue shirt vigilantes, however, who began carrying out violent attacks against red shirts, and some reports on the incidents have even claimed that cases where red shirts were seen throwing small bombs in the direction of blue shirts were in fact cases where the red shirts were throwing back explosives that the blue shirts had lobbed in their direction (Nirmal Ghosh, “Live: Flashpoint Pattaya,” Straits Times, 11 April 2009). We make no claims as to the accuracy of these reports, but once again, until the blue shirt actions at Pattaya are fully investigated-and in fact until the matter of who the blue shirts were and who organized them is addressed-any claims about the origins and extent of state violence are meaningless.

Finally, a number of commentators have chosen-however implausibly or disingenuously-to contrast the violence of the red shirt demonstrators with what they have called the “peaceful” occupation of Bangkok’s Suwannaphum and Don Meuang Airports by yellow shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstrators last year (see, e.g., the comments by various discussants of the Thai crisis on Al Jazeera, 14 April 2009). This claim is not only deeply inaccurate but serves as royalist propaganda in the current political war. The PAD was far from non-violent in its airport occupation: for example, yellow shirt demonstrators attacked police sent to stop the demonstrations (Reuters, “Assault on police shows Thai protestors’ ugly side,” 29 November 2008), and yellow shirt “security” brigades were captured on camera beating people suspected of trying to infiltrate the occupation (Matichon Online, 1 December 2008; see also Jonathan Head, “How did Thai protestors manage it?” BBC News, 3 December 2008). Moreover, the entire spate of PAD occupations during this period-most notably the long occupation of Government House-were marked by violent clashes with red shirt demonstrators and police, with a number of the former being killed (Chang Noi, “The culture of protest and the use of violence,” The Nation, 8 December 2008; Bangkok Pundit, “Protests and Violence,” 8 December 2008). In addition, if the media wish to count property damage as “violence,” the PAD were dramatically more violent than the Songkran red shirt demonstrators, causing tremendous damage to Government House (Bangkok Pundit, “What was Found at Government House? What is Missing,” 8 December 2008), and causing millions of dollars worth of economic damage to Thais and foreign travelers through their airport occupations (Chularat Seangprassa and Wichit Chaitrong, “Stranded aircrafts allowed to leave,” The Nation, 1 December 2008).

It is evidence of the interests and double-standards of the Abhisit government that it has yet to successfully prosecute any PAD leaders for their violence and destruction of property while they have wasted no time in not only arresting but sending to military and Border Patrol Police headquarters three of the leaders of the far less violent and damaging red shirt demonstrations. It is also evidence of the complicity of the media in these hypocritical proceedings that they chime in regarding the violence of the red shirts while they remain mute about the non-prosecution of far more violent PAD leaders.

PPT is concerned that this kind of unbalanced and sometimes frankly dishonest journalism contributes to an environment in which the Abhisit government will be allowed to claim an undeserved moral high ground, without being forced to explain its actions, undertake a serious investigation of the activities of the Thai military, or seriously confront the causes or consequences of the Songkran demonstrations. We urge PPT readers to challenge major media to conduct themselves with greater professional integrity and responsibility.



2 responses

16 04 2009
“Never believe anything until it is officially denied” « Media war

[…] Violence and the media […]

16 04 2009
Heat is felt by Propaganda players « Media war

[…] Violence and the media […]

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