Introduction to English Language Newspapers
Thailand has two very longtime English language newspapers on general news, the Bangkok Post and The Nation. Over the decades, both have been leading newspapers in Asia, having won many awards by international trade organizations. Ex-pats have consistently rated Thailand's newspaper status as among the best in Asia. However, there have been many major events and changes over time.
Of course, countless additional news sources have since emerged on the web, which have dramatically reduced their status and influence, and there have also been many news sources which arrived with a bang but died. The Bangkok Post and The Nation are still around as the two leading "establishment" news sources, though most recently, many people have started to trust the Bangkok Post more due to new owners of The Nation, to say the least ...
One of the later, additional major sources to arise is the English language news of the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT).
For Pattaya, see PattayaMail, and for Phuket, see the Phuket Gazette.
The Bangkok Post was founded by an American editor in 1946 and is staffed with a mix of farangs and Thais. The Nation goes back a long time as a notable newspaper, but took a major turn in 1991 by Thais who broke off from The Bangkok Post over reporting principles, and is directed and staffed more predominantly by Thais. For many years, there was a big rivalry between them. In recent years, The Nation was taken over by people whose political neutrality was questioned, and some people from The Nation moved over to the Bangkok Post.
In the past, some people (including myself) who compare the editorials in the Post and Nation felt that the Nation was usually more critical of the government, though clearly both were critical to similar degrees. Many felt that the Bangkok Post gives a more farang "internationalist" view of sorts, whereas The Nation was a little better at local news and analysis in depth. The Nation was sometimes qualitatively measured as fairly radical in this culture, and it seemed to me to address questionable cultural values more often. However, think and read and think again for yourself.
Many farangs who prefer the Bangkok Post seem to do so because of its "more farang" style, which is in turn due to higher influence by farang journalists within. I tended until recently to prefer The Nation because it seemed to me to be more multifaceted and more sensitive and respectful to a diversity of viewpoints (including more which I disagree with), in addition to somewhat better local analysis, in my opinion. I felt that the Bangkok Post was still a little bit more of an establishment sort of conservative newspaper, and The Nation was a little more courageous, cutting edge and ambitious. Nonetheless, each paper has excellent pieces missing in the other, especially in the analysis sections, and there is not a lot of difference between the two.
We'd like to remind you to not assume accuracy in news reporting in the Thai newspapers (The Nation, The Bangkok Post), the foreign press (about Thailand from outside Thailand) and of course internet websites. As you know, when a newspaper publishes stories about topics that you already know about as a specialist, you often see a lot of inaccuracies, poor analysis and misleading information. So, when you read articles about things you don't know about, do you assume they are more accurate? (It's not just about Thailand; this is what motivated me to get into internet in the 1980s, and I'm happily witnessing the erosion of the powerful centralized media like the BBC, New York Times, etc., by web reporters and blogs!!) Journalists are often lazy, careless, biased, influenced by similarly opinionated peers who they surround themselves with, are hired by their views and not objectivity, have vested interests, etc., despite the official ethics and image. A problem with expats in Thailand is that people parrot "the experts", there are a lot of "urban legends" parading as fact, and as expat newbies arrive, many unfortunately and ignorantly reinforce these mistruths, perspectives and attitudes.
The press in Thailand has been one of the most free in Asia for decades, and continues to be to date. The newspapers are remarkable for their hard-hitting exposes of powerful politicians all the way up to the Prime Minister, the richest people, and entrenched organizations in Thailand, as well as their articles for community service, their intellectual editorials on cultural issues, and their select incorporation of articles from international newswires.
This is something usually taken for granted in many "Western" countries, so don't take it for granted in Asia. Just go to Singapore (with only its official Straits [Jacket] Times) or Malaysia or most any other bordering or regional country and look at the press there.
Thailand has had periods of censorship (e.g., blacked out censored articles) in the past, though the current period is another golden age, hopefully a permanent one. In reading of all the corruption and other dirty issues in the Thai press, the overriding positive thrust is that the Thais can take pride in their free press. Of course, there are also many creatively positive articles as well.
The press is not allowed to publish any negative reports of the royal family, and follows certain sensitive guidelines in layout. All printed publications are bound by law in this regard. The existence of these lese majeste laws are not a sensitive issue and are accepted by all. The King and Queen are extremely popular due to their decades of hard work for the people of Thailand, especially the poorest people, and also stay out of politics except in very rare and extreme situations (such as calling for an end to the physical conflict between pro-democracy students and the military in 1992, leading to a return to civilian led government and the last military run regime to date).
It is argued that the press has other limitations in its freedoms. Some very powerful Thais such as politicians, mafia figures and big businessmen get easily insulted by what is printed about them, and have many ways of hitting back. Actually, it happens practically all over the world, including the U.S., but in Thailand the powerful Thais tend to get away with it a lot more. Even in cases that involve physical assaults, they sometimes are not dealt with strongly and swiftly by the local police or court system, though this situation has improved markedly in recent years.
Some recent events:
In the year 2001, companies associated with the new Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, suddenly started discontinuing advertisements in The Nation, reportedly due to orders from the higher-ups, in order to put pressure on the newspaper for more favorable reporting. The Nation went public with this, rather than cave in. The newspaper is thinner now due to less advertising, but it is just as critical of the government.
Shortly after that, the leader of The Nation was investigated and harrassed by the Anti Money Laundering Office (AMLO), again allegedly upon orders from the higher ups. The Nation's lawyers hit back and pushed forward an investigation of their own thru official channels. It turned out that AMLO protocols were ridiculously bypassed. The investigation was based on one anonymous and vague letter, and was put onto the top of the priority list, in stark contrast to usual investigations.
Before the present administration, back in 1999, some henchmen of a member of parliament walked into a Thai newspaper with guns to have a talk with the editors who wrote a piece critical of the parliamentarian. The police arrived but did not deal with the situation with a show of righteous force when they found out who they were dealing with. As is usual in Thailand, the situation was dealt with by having minimal loss of face, though the parliamentarian and his perpetrators had their reputations worsened (or improved, depending upon your viewpoint) when this event was reported in many other newspapers as well the next day.
There have been numerous threats of lawsuits and filings of lawsuits for slander and the like, as is common anywhere, including western countries with the most free press. A small percentage of lawsuits whose intent is censorship get very far in the courts, much less result in major settlements, but some are tactically introduced.
It's also been said that mutual blackmail is Thailand's preeminent system of checks and balances, and helps explain why the big bad guys always go free and big problems don't get resolved. In the past, some journalists and publications have felt under the hammer of certain operatives at the Ministry of Justice.
The following is what I've heard from some ex-pats who have lived in Thailand for decades and either worked for one of the newspapers or are intimately familiar with them. None wish to be identified by name, and I have not verified the accuracy of all of the following comments on the Bangkok Post and The Nation. Further, I have been cautioned to be careful what I say about these supposed defenders of the right to free speech due to certain powerful owners and other special interests within. Some journalists and newspapers can dish out criticism a lot better than they can take it, and don't always uphold their own professional principles of objectivism. Get on their bad side for one reason or another (your opinions, your knowledge, whatever) and their good 'ol boy network might develop an "attitude" and ostracize you ... or report on you in a biased way ... or worse.
First, a little history. The absolute monarchy was toppled in 1932 by a coalition of the military and civilian intellectuals. The civilians were led by Pridi Panomyong, a French-educated intellectual. The military was led by Phibul Songkram, an ambitious junior army officer who asserted the greater efficiency of the military in running the country, and considered the civil bureaucracy led by Pridi as too corrupt. The initial Prime Minister, Phraya Phanon, was an old military officer who kept Pridi's civil and Phibul's military factions balanced. For decades, Pridi and Phibul would be the leaders of the two powerful forces running Thailand and struggling with each other.
In 1938, amidst military pressures from the neighboring British and French colonies, Phraya retired and Phibul assumed the role of Prime Minister. Phibul allied Thailand with Japan as a way of counterbalancing the Western colonial powers. However, on the day after Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded Thailand. Facing certain defeat, Phibul avoided destruction of Thailand's territory and armed forces by instead negotiating a very cooperative ally arrangement with Japan, especially as a staging point against the British and French. (They also agreed that Thailand would declare war against the U.S., but the Thai ambassador in Washington, D.C., simply never delivered the proclamation nor officially discussed it in Washington, D.C., circles, and relations between Thailand and the U.S. never deteriorated in substance though there were the usual propaganda lines. The U.S. countered efforts by the British and French to condemn Thailand after the war, while the latter two jumped back in to take control of the bordering colonies.)
Phibul ran the Thai puppet government during World War 2, while Pridi led the underground Free Thai movement. Pridi was known as codename "Ruth" by American intelligence, and was widely trusted. Phibul became unpopular due to his association with the Japanese, and when Japan's strength weakened in 1944, the National Assembly demanded the resignation of Phibul and reintroduction of civilian rule. Phibul went into internal exile. Pridi was elected Prime Minister in January 1946.
The Bangkok Post was founded in 1946 by an American and a Thai. The American co-founder, Alexander McDonald (who passed away in the year 2000), was a former World War II U.S. OSS agent (the precursor to the CIA), and experienced editor and a close admirer of Pridi.
The king returned from studies in Switzerland in 1945. However, he was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head in June 1946. The government initially said it was an accident when he was cleaning his Colt 45, but few believed this, and outside forensic experts were called in. They determined it was either a murder or suicide, and virtually everyone agreed it was fairly certain that it was a murder. (The assailant and motive remains a mystery.)
The bungled government investigation along with Prime Minister Pridi's longtime antiroyalist assertions left Pridi responsible in some of the public eye. Phibun's remaining camp was of course not supportive of Pridi, and some say that the leaders of a conservative opposition party also acted to hasten Pridi's demise. Pridi resigned in August 1946 and left the country (some say escaped bullets, too) on an extended vacation, with the assistance of McDonald.
The years since have seen countless flip-flops between civil and military rule.
At the beginning, the Bangkok Post was independent and quite critical of the military leaders. Over the years, especially after McDonald left, the Post became an establishment paper, remaining politically correct, id est "politically safe".
Another newspaper was started during FM Sarit Thanarat's reign, called the Bangkok World. It was begun -- with government support -- to rival the Post.
In the late 1980's, the Bangkok Post acquired the Bangkok World.
The Nation was founded by a group of Thais reacting to this acquisition and its results in reporting. The founders wanted to provide an alternative English language newspaper. The founder of The Nation quit working for the Bangkok Post in order to start the new newspaper.
The Nation was widely commended for taking a courageously strong stand against the 1991 coup by the National Peace-Keeping Council (NPKC) (which, in turn, fell in 1992 after shooting pro-democracy student protesters).
Today, the two newspapers compete to provide quality coverage. Each improves the other by competition. They are both excellent newspapers, and the differences I report below should not lead you to believe that they are very different in their reporting. Compared to other countries, the reporting by the Bangkok English language dailies is far more similar than different.
Some people who compare the editorials in the Post and Nation feel that the Nation is usually more critical of the government, though clearly both are critical to similar degrees. Many feel that the Bangkok Post gives a more farang "internationalist" view of sorts, whereas The Nation may be a little better at local news and analysis. The Nation is sometimes qualitatively measured as fairly radical in this culture, and it seems to me to address questionable cultural values more often. However, think and read and think for yourself.
Many farangs who prefer the Bangkok Post seem to do so because of its "more farang" style, which is in turn due to higher influence by farang journalists within. I tend to prefer The Nation because it seems to me to be more multifaceted and more sensitive and respectful to a diversity of viewpoints, in addition to somewhat better local analysis, in my opinion. I feel that the Bangkok Post is still a little bit more of an establishment sort of conservative newspaper, and The Nation is a little more courageous, cutting edge and ambitious. Nonetheless, each paper has excellent pieces missing in the other, especially in the analysis sections, and there is not a lot of difference between the two.
Both newspapers underwent significant changes due to the 1997 Asia economic crash.
The Nation cut its foreign staff by about 80% after the 1997 economic crash, whereas the Post kept all its foreign staff but cut out foreign freelancers. But it cannot all be blamed on the 1997 crash, as The Nation had financial difficulties in 1997 due to opening up too many new ventures (e.g., magazines) just before the financial crash. The Nation staff works longer hours but it pays its staff better. Sometimes it's obvious they're short on proofreading. According to some, there is concern over morale with some staff, and potential defections to the Bangkok Post for an easier way of life. We shall see what happens. I'd be surprised if my favorite journalists' names start appearing in the Bangkok Post. Other staff, well, who knows...
The foreign staff at the Bangkok Post are mostly old-timers and naturally concerned with keeping their jobs. That presents its own drain on the newspaper, but then again, they get more advertising income.
Many longtime expats note that in past years the Bangkok Post was known for choosing sides in political power struggles, whereby they would predict the winner and suck up to them as a public relations proxy, rather than as a responsible newspaper. Most of these expats say, however, that the Post has cleaned up its act considerably in the past 10 years after The Nation emerged. The Nation was founded partly by defectors from the Bangkok Post.
There is one incident in particular which is very salient in Thai history, which goes back to a popular uprising in the 1970s in which the Bangkok Post was allegedly instrumental in a disinformation effort to discredit the anti-dictator student movement in the eyes of the general public. It involved a front page photo which was changed to look like the students were against the Royal Family, which was false. In the year 2001, The Nation raised this issue against the Post, in an article in The Nation, and the Post sued for libel, saying it wasn't true. In the judgement, there were several points of contention, and it was ruled in favor of the The Nation on all points except one: that The Nation should have given the Bangkok Post more of a chance to present their side of the story. Both newspapers ran stories the next day claiming victory in court.
Besides reporting on politics, both newspapers have excellent reporting on business, travel, entertainment and special articles on the activities on good samaritans and nongovernmental organizations.
One area in which The Nation is significantly better is in its technology reporting. An example is in its IT section. The Bangkok Post tends to deal more with helping the novice user, whereas The Nation better covers emerging technologies and trends.
You may note that The Nation is owned and operated by the Nation Multimedia Group, which is ambitious, and that their website is technically more sophisticated and superior to the Post's. The Bangkok Post runs its IT section on a very limited budget and in an old-school way, whereas The Nation is apparently investing heavily in the Internet future. The Bangkok Post was initially dragged into the web world by an expat named Theo in the mid to late 1990s. Theo did not have a high position in the Post, and subsequently disappeared from it after an acknowledgement. The Post's web operation lagged behind The Nation's, especially in retrieving archival articles. The two are now nearly at parity for general web surfers, but it wasn't always that way.
With the advent of the Internet, the paper medium is giving way to the electronic medium. You don't need to buy a printing press and lots of paper to guarantee that you can express your right to free speech. Now all you need is a website on the so-called Information Superhighway, especially if that website is located on an overseas server, as many people have pointed out.
It possible that in the future, other "newspapers" specializing in certain issues will pop up on the Internet, in both English and Thai, similar to in other countries. However, in Thailand, a much smaller percentage of the population has access to the Internet at this time. This may change as the Internet is relied upon moreso in the future in day to day commercial marketing, sales and delivery. E-commerce and Internet will bring in more cheap "dumb terminals" which are little more than a screen, keyboard and Internet connection (as opposed to a full blown personal computer), and Thai gossip will take it from there.
However, for the moment, the main news gathering and distribution publications, TV shows and radio programs in Thailand have maintained their current operations in a traditional mode, with their websites performing a minor role overall. There is still a clear technical as well as corporate distinction between them.
When Internet connections expand, and when bandwidth improves so that multimedia clips become a good market, The Nation Multimedia Group may be one of the first in Thailand to merge the various media sectors. Or, possibly, additional entities may spring up, since they don't need to buy the paper generation and physical distribution means.
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