Sunday, June 20, 2010

CNN, BBC fully deserve criticism over Thai crisis

Dan Rivers' assertion that CNN's coverage of the crackdown on the red-shirt protest was "impartial" ("CNN, BBC correspondents defend coverage", The Nation, June 12) is simply untrue. The misinformation, generalisations and biases seen on CNN and BBC cannot be easily excused, especially because these reports brought the story of Thailand's conflict to the world - and the story the world saw was not the story of what actually happened.

The point is not that CNN didn't report that some of the red shirts were armed or show those armed men to the viewers. This they did. Where CNN and Rivers failed is in properly explaining the context of what was happening during the May 14-19 crackdown - and without proper context, understanding the story becomes impossible.

When Dan Rivers reported on May 14 that soldiers were firing on protesters, whom Rivers repeatedly insisted were unarmed, he was misinforming his viewers. He was omitting the fact that the soldiers were firing defensively on men who had been attacking them all morning with makeshift weapons, guns and grenades after the Army tried to secure a perimeter around the protest zone. Rivers did not mention that such red-shirt assaults were part of a long-standing pattern of militancy. The red shirts had been attacking legal authorities and civilians for weeks - invading Parliament and Thaicom, beating and killing military officials, fatally attacking peaceful anti-red-shirt demonstrators in Silom, and storming Chulalongkorn Hospital, forcing it to evacuate its patients.

Crucial context

Watching CNN, you'd never know any of these outrages took place prior to the Army's crackdown of May 14-19, or that even on the morning of May 14, the Army did not choose to attack the red shirts within their protest zone. Without explaining this crucial context, it simply appeared to most viewers that the Army was shooting at the protesters - something most peace-loving viewers would find abhorrent.

While Rivers was creating a picture of tough Army action against the protesters, CNN failed to run a video of a group of red shirts brutally attacking an unarmed soldier, which happened earlier in the day. When CNN finally ran the footage two days later, they edited out a key section - the part where red-shirt assailants dragged the soldier out of his truck as he was pleading for mercy and began to beat him viciously. That part of the video also included the assailants' attempts to wrest another soldier's weapon from his hands, and finally the soldiers firing into the air to disperse the assailants, so they could rescue their comrade, who, in the end, had to be medically evacuated.

The video showed both the violent nature of the red-shirt mobs and the enormous restraint of the Army in dealing with them. It is inconceivable that members of the US military would allow their comrades to be beaten in front of their eyes without shooting the assailants on the spot. CNN never ran any commentary on the video, never explained what was happening, only mentioning that they weren't sure when and where the action was taking place!

In fact, what we saw on the video was a repetition of the red-shirt tactics of April 10 of aggressively attacking military personnel, and the Thai Army taking all possible measures to avoid retaliating to such violent provocation. But apparently, this type of thoughtful commentary would be at odds with the story CNN was trying to tell - and was conveniently avoided.

I might add that CNN ran the video from YouTube. Were they too lazy to contact Thai PBS for the original footage as Asia News Network did, or was it simply more convenient to run grainy and unclear footage to a confused audience?

The many accusations of bias against CNN and BBC are also rooted in the fact that none of their reporters spoke with average Bangkok residents to gauge their views on the protest, speaking to red-shirt protesters and their leaders only.

Sorry, Dan, speaking to government officials doesn't count, that's an unavoidable part of your job.

And neither offered any analysis of the situation beyond repeating a one-sided view that this was a struggle of the poor masses against a "Bangkok elite", as if only the "elite" took issue with the red shirts. Both networks failed to address a crucial fact that many red-shirt demonstrators were not, in fact, poor, and many working class Thais in Bangkok and beyond strongly opposed the rally, something they could have learned by talking to people outside the protest zone.

Failing to take notice

Both networks mostly ignored the anti-red-shirt demonstrators who held genuinely peaceful protests for weeks and included people from all walks of life. The networks especially failed to take notice of the protesters in Silom who were killed and injured in the M79 attacks of April 22. These citizens put their lives on the line in defence of Thailand's democracy and paid the ultimate price for exercising their right to free speech. When discussing the Army's actions, Rivers never mentioned that the crackdown was against an organisation suspected of murdering one and wounding 75 unarmed civilians that night. How can CNN and Rivers honestly consider such an omission impartial reporting?

As an outsider, you'd never know from CNN that the rally had been violent and unruly for weeks, and that a similarly violent protest would never be tolerated in New York, London or Paris. The firing of firecrackers at military helicopters alone, something that the red shirts did almost daily with impunity - would warrant an immediate crackdown in most nations, let alone a takeover of several large blocks in the city centre and using that zone to store and repeatedly fire weapons. The incendiary nature of the red-shirt leaders' diatribes, and the fact that much of it would be considered "hate speech" and banned in many Western democracies, were conveniently ignored. I'm curious to see how Rivers would have reported this story if a group of Australian extremists urged their supporters to pour a million gallons of gasoline on Sydney and set the city alight if their political demands were not met.

The networks gave weight to a false red-shirt allegation that Thailand's government was undemocratic, playing down or ignoring the obvious - that the mob action was created by, organised and paid for by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and carried out by his political operatives with financial support from his rich cronies. Worst of all, CNN and BBC completely ignored the fact that the fundamentally illiberal nature of a protest that used violence against both authorities and innocent people would make it utterly revolting to most of their viewers, were they kept fully informed of its details.

And that's the crux of the problem. While CNN and BBC were relaying the red-shirt leaders' claims of "double standards" in Thailand to viewers, the networks were, ironically, applying their own form of double standards to the story by treating it as another righteous struggle for democracy in a third-world country - without applying the same level of scrutiny to such claims had the rally taken place in a more "important" country.

CNN and BBC chose to create simple, distorted narratives rather than tackle the complex reality of this truly fascinating story. The disservice they did to the story, to Thailand, to their viewers and to themselves was immense. Many people, including myself, no longer trust these networks to report the truth. The criticism heaped upon them in the wake of their sub-par reporting is just and fully deserved.
Dave Sherman freelance writer in Bangkok.

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