This interview with Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of Prachatai.com, was conducted on 7 February 2010 by a New Mandala contributor. Chiranuch is currently on trial for allegedly breaking Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act.
On press freedom in Thailand
“When we talk about press freedom in Thailand, it’s quite controlled by the state and being manipulated by the entertainment business and the corporates. If you talk about news and politics, we cannot show as much criticism, about what the government did, right or wrong. Most of the media in Thailand is owned by the military or by the state. This is a problem of ownership.
Another problem are the main programs of the Thai media, a problem similar to some other parts of the world; media that focuses on entertainment, that doesn’t respect that the people need information… to have a healthy judgment of society.
And when we talk about the print media, they have a strong organizations… They can say more, they are freer than broadcast media. They have associations that can protect their journalists. The main problem in my view is that mainstream media do not feel as if they need protection from the state, especially under the current government. And yet self-censorship is extensive. Particularly when we speak to some issues – the military, namely, and the monarchy.
On the internet, there are many more new forms of media that do not work in the traditional way. When people who are not journalists feel they are disappointed, or upset, they start to use the internet as a new platform. It is a new channel for them to seek information on issues misrepresented in the mainstream. The internet in Thailand is considered a new platform; it is a platform in which people can engage more in politics, the right to express themselves.
These kinds of phenomena have happened since the anti-Thaksin movement started. These groups used the internet as their platform to promote their movement, and it had much success. Then, after the coup, the government has become concerned with the internet, and these new media; the new territories that they needed to control.
During the Thaksin (administration), we didn’t have difficulties in doing our work. Even though we started during a time when we thought media under Thaksin was unacceptable; we needed independent, alternative news information. We didn’t face the problems of other media, perhaps because we’d just started.
We reported on the Tak Bai Massacre in the South that many in the mainstream media didn’t report at that time; we tried to do an investigative report. But we didn’t receive any threats or intimidation from the military or the state. The threats we’ve received have been after the coup – after September 2006. The first time we were contacted by the police… including the Minister, at that time, came in October 2006, and has since been ongoing.”
On the Legal Process
“I’ve been intimidated through the law – with the legal process that I’ve been faced with. When the Computer Crimes Act came into force in July 2007, Article 15 talks about the service provider who can be charged on behalf of the people who commit the crime under Article 14. For me, when this law passed, even though I disagreed, I studied the law. I believe that there are some parts of the law that can undermine internet freedoms, can undermine the freedom of expression in Thailand, and can probably undermine the economic growth of the ICT business in Thailand. But I still believe, as I understand the law, that I complied with it. I didn’t violate this law, whether I agreed with it or not. I didn’t expect to be charged, but I was concerned that the internet (users) could be charged under the law. But it happened…
This is intimidation through the legal process. And the way that I’ve been treated. I don’t know why they needed to order an arrest warrant. I’m the one with an office! Prachatai openly produces where we live, where we work, we are easily contacted… I’m a person they can easily find. I don’t know why they need to make it seem (otherwise). Even involved as an activist, I used to be involved in protests, movements, demonstrations… I didn’t expect this kind of thing to happen to me. I have an arrest warrant, with my name on it like a criminal. I thought, “wow”. So as media, we’ve tried to be respectful, to keep our professionalism; we need that.”
On the Outcome of the Trial
“I expect justice. I still believe that justice remains in Thai society. I believe that in Thailand, we used to believe we lived in a free and open society, perhaps a long time ago. I believe in the people – in the sentiments of the people of our society. As the people, that we are not growing up in a country totally controlled. People have some experiences that they can express freely, until they face some kind of difficulties to express (themselves)… The people, the public, have the capacity to direct the country as well.”
On the future of Prachatai
“This is a tough question. Among us, we worry about finances – how we can self-sustain. But also, how we can continue our work to fill the gap in the society, to give some benefit to the society as much as possible. And these kinds of things need to be discussed… We cannot talk and make decisions for the next five years, or ten years (of Prachatai) because the situation in Thailand is such that we are in a moment that is quite uncertain… about what is going on in Thai society. But we still need to be as right as we can be, at this present time, as much as possible. The challenge is how we can maintain our force.
Prachatai’s staff are quite young, and we work quite differently from the way the mainstream media work. Our team is small… We don’t vertically assign work – we work horizontally. We work in a very democratic way… Even though democracy is inefficient, sometimes! But if we believe in democracy, we must show this in our work. Democracy is not perfect. Democracy is messy. But you need to work through it.
We’ve survived. Even in the past, when it’s been more difficult. So for now, I think we can survive.
I’m lucky that I have funding support for my legal fees, separate from Prachatai… There’s people who want to support.
If I believe in internet freedom… then I know that it’s the wrong direction, to control the internet. It will undermine the internet itself… The concept of the internet is openness. But this doesn’t mean we don’t need to do anything to control it. The internet is a new kind of media, that introduces new cultures, and new communities, other societies – the internet as a society. These kinds of society need experience, to find their norms, to find some kind of consensus agreement… It’s not about a single dictator to control everything. It’s a society, and this is an opportunity for our society to learn, to build up our consensus, our norms.”
On Prachatai’s Public Forums
“(People) want to talk about politics. About anti-coup sentiment issues, the competence or incompetence of the government, criticism of the authorities. When the Prachatai forum became more popular, this was after the coup. This was because it is difficult for people to find the space to express their concerns or opinions. But we are open. The coup should be an acceptable subject, and people have the right to criticism that. These kinds of things made Prachatai more popular. We didn’t cut people off…
We started in the Thai (language). This was our capacity. Our concern is how to be the source for the Thai public to have an independent and alternative (news) source; the mainstream media doesn’t represent this voice. I think it’s important that the people can be heard, even if they feel they can’t be heard in the mainstream media… Traditional media believe that they have to listen to people with ‘big names’, ‘important’ people. But for us, it’s important to listen to the people. So for Prachatai, it’s our duty to fill this gap; of issues, of perspective. The media has a duty to work for the people. It should be that the media can be used by the people. If the people want to be heard, we should be the channels, the tools, for people to access. This is the important work of Prachatai.
From my experience, when I used to work on HIV/AIDS, this was a sensitivity issue; the issues of gender sensitivity, of prejudice, of stigmatization. I learned it’s important for people to be sending out their voice, their issues. It’s not as though someone who ‘knows best’ should always speak; the members of the society should speak, too.
We began English (translation of Prachatai) after the coup. We already observed that there are non-Thai speakers who are interested in Thailand’s issues. In the English source newspapers in Thailand, there are issues that are missed. But we try to cover these… But in English, we only have one-and-a-half staffers to work on this. We have contributors, but we still cannot cover the daily news as do The Nation and the Bangkok Post. So we try to cover the stories that aren’t covered much; like issues of freedom of expression, of lese-majeste…
There are many Prachatai stories that I am proud of. Like our stories during the Tak Bai Massacre. The situation in the deep south at that time, when no one listened to the people… No one came to ask the witnesses, who were still alive, in the hospitals and the villages, what happened. But our reporters did, even though it was dangerous. I think this was a wonderful thing that we can be proud of. And also, during (last year’s) protests, a number of issues that Prachatai covered were the voices of the people; we tried to ask the people what their motivations were, to join the protests – what they expected from it. Whether we agree or disagree; we still have to listen. Especially from those people who’ve never been involved in Thai politics before; why they don’t keep silent, as in the past. These are important issues. We must listen to the people.
Sometimes we’ve been criticized as the ‘Red Shirt’ media; but we represent the voice of the people, regardless of what colour they are. The people have their own mind; their own will. These are the stories we must listen to.”