Bangkok aftermath – the hatred, vitriol and the blame game

The ‘red shirt’ protests in Bangkok is over (at least for now). The glitzy shopping district the protesters took over for over two months was being scrubbed clean as I started writing this blog.

Thousands of volunteers were sweeping, hosing and doing whatever they can on Sunday to wipe away any sign of the protests.

By Monday, the only things left were the still-smouldering Central World shopping centre, the smell of burnt tyre and ash lingering in the air and if it hasn’t been removed, the bouquet of flowers left on one of the streets in memory of Fabio Polenghi, the Italian journalist who died last Wednesday.

But the emotional scars will take much longer to heal, if any of the hatred, vitriol and blame game going on currently is anything to go by. The international media has been right in the middle of all of this, getting all of the above.

As a small part of that crowd, it’s going to be difficult for me to stay impartial but I’ll try my best.

There are many charges levelled at the international media, the foremost being of providing biased and shallow cover. Depending on who (and which coloured shirt you talk to), we are too lenient on the ‘reds’ or the ‘yellows’.

Such accusations are nothing new. We are regularly coerced, threatened, berated and derided for doing something/ not doing it enough/ doing nothing in almost every part of the world. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not.

At the start of the latest ‘red shirt’ protests, I agreed with some earlier complaints on social networking sites in Thailand over how we’re giving a free pass to the ‘red shirt’ leaders.

It’s pretty natural for journalists to side with the underdog. We support the small teams over rich ones. We like to see poor, nerdy dudes beat the big, burly school jocks. We root for the oppressed to rise up against the evil Big Brother governments.

For many of us who covers current affairs (and by this I exclude tabloid journalists and Fox news), we got into this profession because we strongly feel the social injustice in the world. And it is easy to portray the recent conflict in Thailand as the poor ‘red shirts’ against the rich, elitist ‘yellow shirts’.

But doing so is only telling half of the story.

Not all ‘red shirts’ are poor and not all ‘yellow shirts’ are middle-class Bangkokians. There are extremely rich people who are part of ‘red shirts’ like the exiled former PM and billionaire businessman Thaksin.

Likewise, not all ‘red shirts’ are innocent protesters (there are hardliners armed with guns, grenades and all kinds of arsenal) in the same way that not all ‘yellow shirts’ are serious about freedom of expression and democracy (read my earlier post or this opinion piece from ABC)

Like all truths, the real situation in Thailand is very murky. But in trying to portray the situation to mainstream audiences beyond Thailand, some of the media ended up simplifying the story and what came out was how the ‘red shirts’ were being unfairly oppressed.

Some ‘red shirt’ leaders had called their supporters to burn down Bangkok in their fiery speeches. They complain about government violence but refuse to talk about the regular grenade attacks in the city centre which many believe some of the militant ‘red shirts’ were responsible for.

Many were left of the hook by international media.

The BBC and CNN bore the brunt of the complaints, partly because, well they’re BBC and CNN and also because of what they supposedly present – western countries with western journalists trying to cover a deeply national issue.

Yes, international media should’ve been more cynical towards the ‘reds’ (we were also criticised for being too ‘yellow’ over the airport seizure) and not take what they said at face value. International media should’ve pushed them a lot more on who is funding this whole protest, how and why their rhetoric of being peaceful protesters and militant actions are at a discord.

One of the biggest bones of contention is over whether the ‘red shirts’ were armed. Most of the complaints were from people who are upset over CNN and BBC’s coverage which they felt favoured the ‘red shirts’ at a time the government was calling them ‘terrorists’.

The diatribe ranged from ‘useless’ and ‘liars’ to things I wouldn’t publish here.

An eyewitness account by the Independent’s Andrew Buncombe, who was shot while taking refuge with 1,500 ‘red shirt’ protesters in a temple – a supposed safe haven – received jibes as being in the pay of Thaksin.

The local papers and TV stations were largely spared, although in one instance (although not the only one) when the Sydney Morning Herald did a story on the crackdown, The Nation decided to selectively tweet parts of the story which talked about ‘red shirts’ being armed, while conveniently forgetting the lines on soldiers shooting indiscriminately.

There is so much anger over what happened everyone has an opinion and they are not afraid to say it. And with the rise of the social media, everyone is a commentator.

My biggest concern, though, is not that citizens are pointing out the shortfalls of international media, rather that it has gone way beyond constructive criticism to include vicious vitriol against individual reporters, fuelling the hatred both sides have helped to fan in the past months.

Journalists are routinely called names and insulted. Facebook pages have been set up against award-winning CNN correspondent Dan Rivers. He has reportedly received death threats. Twitterers make snide remarks about BBC’s editorial values. An open letter by a Thai citizen towards CNN got so much attention it was featured in many places (I myself got the same letter twice in one morning) including local news media.

Interestingly enough, a third-party rebuttal to that open letter never made it very far.

I’m all for taking people to account. I take my responsibility as a journalist quite seriously (maybe too seriously, some would say) and I understand the power of words. But is there really a need to threaten someone with bodily harm because his opinion differs from yours?

My take on it is that while there are legitimate concerns over international media’s coverage of the riots in Bangkok – said to be the worst in the country’s modern history – there are similarly legitimate concerns over the people making those complaints.

The overwhelming feeling I got is that most criticism is not based on the desire for serious, unfettered, transparent and unbiased journalism. Because if that is the case, people should also be worried about the government cracking down on websites, Facebook pages and any other media that is deemed ‘anti-government’.

They should question ALL media reports and everything both the government and the protesters are saying, not just foreign media.

They should also wonder why, if all the ‘red shirts’ are as armed to the teeth as has been suggested, why is the death toll so one-sided? Of the at least 54 people who died in violent clashes since May 13, only two are soldiers and one of them was a result of sniper fire.

Respected blogger Bangkok Pundit has an interesting take over this issue here.

Of course, it could also be that I’m a foreign journalist and I really just don’t get it.