Although citizen journalists are actively contributing to media information flows in Thailand, their role here remains a matter of debate between traditional media professional and advocates of citizen media.
Citizen journalism in Thailand made considerable headway during the sporadic protests calling for political and monarchy reform that started in 2020. Cheaper internet access and smartphones helped citizen journalists to provide coverage from protest areas where mainstream media dared not go.
While their daring coverage has had an impact on the Thai media industry, they remain without official standing or legal protection and there is seemingly no immediate chance for improvement.
On 26 September 2022, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) hosted a panel discussion on the rise of citizen journalism and its impact on the Thai media landscape. Comprised of citizen and traditional journalists, the panelists agreed that citizen journalism was becoming increasingly important. They also noted that citizen journalists were still being denied recognition and compensation for their hard work.
Harbingers on the front lines
Wasinee Pabuprapap, a reporter for WorkPoint Today and media freedom advocate, stressed that the development is not unique to Thailand. In countries where traditional media have difficulty operating, independent media and citizen journalists have been taking over the job.
In Thailand, journalists are subject to both direct and indirect control from the authorities. In exchange for their operational licensing, larger media concerns often face more restrictions, making it difficult for them to report on some issues directly.
For example, when the protesters called for reform of the monarchy, some established media concerns opted for self-censorship to the point of ending live broadcasts. To provide coverage of the protests, citizen journalists stepped up do the job themselves. The result was a truer coverage of events.
A traditional journalist, Wasinee acknowledged that she not only worked alongside citizen journalists but came to rely on their coverage because she could not be at every protest all of the time. As there were always citizen journalists on site live-streaming, traditional journalists could find out what was happening.
“When something happens, they capture it really quickly, and I myself can also use their material in order to complete my report. So we work together in the field as reporters,” she said.
Journalists created unequal?
Normally, a citizen journalist can obtain an armband from the Thai Journalist Association to avoid being mistaken as a protester. However, the method does not ensure access in the field as police may still ask to see an official certificate from an editor, a document lone wolf reporters have difficulty obtaining. Some observers suspect that this is a tactic to limit the number of journalists covering police operations.
Wasinee argues that Thai authorities insist upon seeing credentials because citizen journalists providing live in-depth coverage of protests occasionally uncover police violence.
Journalists without credentials can get into trouble. Nattapong ‘Opal’ Malee, the founder of Ratsadon News, noted that citizen journalists reporting from the streets risked arrested. He had the experience himself. A liberal arts graduate inspired by another online media organisation, the Reporters, he decided to do live streaming during the surge of youth protests in 2020.
He became well-known for his long, in-depth live coverage from Din Daeng Intersection, where protesters marching towards Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha’s house clashed with crowd control police. The battles began in August 2021 and lasted for 3 months.
“Reporting from there had challenges. Field reporters trying to cover events were being targeted by the police,” said Nattapong.
Without any affiliation to mainstream media, Nattapong tried to fit in by wearing the bright vest and arm bands that other journalists were wearing. He was arrested anyway. The police charged him with violating the emergency decree and curfew regulations, charges that were not used against other reporters at Din Daeng.
Nattapong suspects that the police targeted him and tracked his location from his Facebook stream.
Asked about Nattapong’s arrest, Pol Col Kritsana Phattanacharoen, the then deputy police spokesperson, explained to the press that Youtubers and freelancers with no affiliation were not allowed to cover the protests, sparking criticism that the police were trying to narrow the definition of ‘media’.
A WorkPoint Today journalist added that the police were not the only problem. Traditional media groups often treated citizen journalists as “fakes” with little interest and understanding of journalism. She noted there is no law prohibiting people from conducting journalism and no need for anyone to seek state approval to be a reporter.
Speaking of ‘Opal’, Wasinee said that his qualifications were beyond dispute as “his pictures recorded history … and he proved to be tougher than traditional journalists.”
Advocates for citizen journalism want citizen journalists to enjoy the same protection that traditional journalists do, especially in circumstances where they are at risk. Traditional journalists have their own organisation to speak for them. Citizen journalists doing the same job have no representation.
Teeramon Buangam, assistant online editor for the public participation department at ThaiPBS, a state-sponsored media organisation that has been pioneering support for citizen journalists, said that to help promote freedom of the press, media organisations should provide a place for citizen journalists to engage with traditional media.
He added that he is now working to build collaboration between a network of grassroots public movements and citizen journalists. Thai PBS works with citizen journalists around the country. They can even publish their work on a section of the Thai PBS website designated for local news and citizen journalists. Despite Thai PBS efforts, he feels that more space must be made for citizen journalists.
Last July, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the release of Thai police documents containing a list of journalists, activists, and citizen journalists covering pro-democracy protests, including their photographs, personal information, and social media accounts, and urged the Thai authorities to safeguard the safety and security of all working journalists and citizen journalists.