In September 2006, when the military overthrew the government of Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup, the Thai-language press had little to offer in the way of coverage or criticism. (This may have been due to the presence of soldiers in many newsrooms around the country.) Arthit Suriyawongkul, a native of Bangkok working in Germany at the time, learned of the coup from a newspaper while on a train. Desperate for firsthand accounts of what was happening back home, he scoured Web sites of the Thai-language press. “All I could find was positive coverage, with lots of photos of people celebrating and handing flowers to soldiers,” he says. Eventually, he found what he was looking for— in the Thai blogosphere, where citizen reporters delivered what the Thai press would not (or could not)—a flurry
of news dispatches and opinion pieces
The debate over citizen journalism in the U.S. tends to dwell, tediously, on whether citizen reporters can supplant, rather than complement, the professional press. But in many countries around the world, where the press is under government control, corrupt, or simply incompetent, citizen journalists may be the only source of information that is reasonably credible. Without citizen reporters in Myanmar, for instance, it would have been impossible to know what was happening during anti-government demonstrations last year, while in the Middle East, bloggers have become a viable alternative to the heavily censored, state-run media.
In Thailand, says CJ Hinke, a retired academic associated with Thammasat University in Bangkok and the international coordinator for Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, “people perceived that they could write better about what was really going on than the mainstream Thai media, which have traditionally been censored.” He estimates that Thailand has a minimum of seven hundred blogs—most written by young, university-educated urbanites—that feature daily reporting and commentary on domestic politics.
One of these bloggers is Sarinee Achavanuntakul, the author of the popular fringer.org. Achavanuntakul originally blogged in English and sought an audience abroad, but switched to her native language when she realized there was a need for honest reporting inside Thailand. Like many of her fellow bloggers, she was drawn to political writing out of frustration with Prime Minister Thaksin, whom she criticized as corrupt and authoritarian. But what makes her a journalist, as opposed to simply an activist, is her commitment to facts and balance. “I would go to these anti-Thaksin rallies and I would get annoyed, because some of the information presented [by Thaksin’s critics] was wrong or one-sided,” Achavanuntakul says. She used her background in finance (she works at a bank in Bangkok) to write detailed analyses of the former prime minister’s business activities. “I wanted to be substantive, to back up what I said with evidence,” she says. Her writing helped to provoke the public backlash against Thaksin that laid the groundwork for the coup.
Achavanuntakul and her fellow bloggers soon discovered, however, that life under a military government was worse than Thaksin’s regime. The junta, in a sign of how seriously it took the citizen journalists, made it a priority to block hosting sites. That, along with restrictive speech laws and a lack of Internet access outside of Bangkok, limited their influence. Nonetheless, they continued to speak out against the military government, which finally stepped aside in December 2007 and agreed to allow elections.
Achavanuntakul says the coup demonstrated the importance of alternative information sources in times of political upheaval and censorship. For his part, Suriyawongkul worries about the long-term impact of the coup. “I’m afraid the coup has set Thai politics back thirty to fifty years,” he said. Perhaps, but it might have shown Thai journalism the future.
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