Sorcery and religious rites that are deeply imbedded in Thai society have been in the spotlight as mainstream media outlets have joined hands with vigilantes to expose monastic malpractice and cults. Calls for professionalism that have long been overshadowed by competition for audiences have been sounded again.
A sign with the word "PRESS" on a fence in front of Pathumwan police station. (File photo)
Jeerapan ‘Mor Pla’ Pachrkaw, a popular online influencer known for exposing myths and sorcery in his Brahman-Buddhist shaman style has appeared in mainstream media as far as back as 2012. His unusual signature performances, including exorcisms or banging down haunted objects have attracted 2.4 million subscribers on his own YouTube channel.
Since 2021, he has become more famous for spearheading a contingent of civilians and media to raid temples suspected of housing unruly monks who have broken the sangha discipline by, for example, drinking alcohol or consorting with women.
The acts of vigilantism went on and people loved it. Television ratings show news about this or other content exposing monks in the top rankings on 9 February, 2 May, and 9 May, sometimes even outstripping the dominant entertainment programmes, and this does not include similar content that went viral on social media.
Joining hands with the vigilantes, the media repeatedly exposes monks allegedly drinking alcohol, secretly keeping company with women in and outside the temple. One scandal ruined audiences’ appetite by covering a cult leader who allegedly had his disciples consume urine, faeces, scurf, pus, and phlegm as medicines.
But a mistaken report in mid-May demonstrated how competition brought the Thai media industry to the point where five mainstream media outlets have been motivated to fire their reporters.
On 11 May, Jeerapan and a group of reporters barged into Dong Sawang Tham Monastery located at Pa Tio District, Yasothon Province, and accused Saeng Yanwaro, also known as Luang Pu Saeng, a famous 99 year-old monk known for his exemplary meditation, of groping the breasts of a woman and her mother.
The accusation was based on a video which was made public on 12 May, filmed at Luang Pu Saeng’s residence. This showed him getting very close to a woman. It was later discovered that the woman in the video is a news reporter from Workpoint TV who posed as a worshipper in order to get close to the monk. The same reporter was also among the pack that accompanied Jeeraphan in the raid on Luang Pu Saeng’s residence where she was seen aggressively challenging the monk’s explanation.
The Pa Tio District chief, Anusit Buahoong was presented at the scene but did not appear to bring the issue to an official process. However, he issued a letter on 14 May, saying he went there from an undetailed petition submitted to him just only to find himself in the middle of the ongoing argument. He apologised to the public for his incapability and affirmed that he is also a strong believer in Buddhism.
The tide quickly turned when Dr Songpon Yuensuk of Yasothon Hospital said he has been checking Luang Pu Saeng’s health and found that he shows regular signs of Alzheimer’s, such as repeatedly asking to be vaccinated when he had just had the shot, and repeatedly giving him an amulet.
Thaksina Dihom, Luang Pu Saeng’s granddaughter, later presented a medical document confirming that he has undergone a treatment for paralysis. She also showed evidence confirming his Alzheimer’s.
The brazen intrusion into the temple has backfired on Jeeraphan and the media presenting it. Luang Pu Saeng’s disciples regard it as a grave assault on someone they revere. Public criticism was also directed at the Workpoint reporter for her role in fabricating the scandal without cross-checking the monk’s situation.
The social reaction resulted in Workpoint News announcing the dismissal of their reporter. 4 other media outlets, Channel 8, Channel 3, Amarin TV 34 and Thairath TV, who had their reporters at the scene to present similar content, also announced that the reporters involved were either fired or temporarily suspended.
The aftermath of the scandal was described as a “crisis of faith in the media” by Peerawat Chotthammo, President of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, in a live public panel held by the Thai Journalists Association “Studying media ethics: work, scene setting, the occult, the monkhood”.
Peerawat, a veteran news editor and television newsroom executive, said the Luang Pu Saeng case could be an inflection point where the Thai media becomes aware of how competition has motivated a desperate struggle for ratings, to the neglect of professional media ethics.
According to a study by a leading TV rating institution, AC Neilson, and his own study, Peerawat finds that no matter how hard the media tries, ratings do not exceed level 3 (around 1.8 million viewers). This shows the need to review an overly commercialised media industry that largely depends on ratings, which directly translates into advertising revenue.
A file photo of TV cameras stationed in front of the Parliament.
The Luang Pu Saeng case is a textbook example of how a social media figure has induced news reporters to take an active role in the story in order to turn an incident into a news story. This steps over the boundary of ‘not becoming the news themselves.’
Supinya Klangnarong, a former member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), said in the panel discussion that it has been difficult to balance content regulation and press freedom. In many cases, regulation is weak when the media step over the line such as in the reporting about Luang Pu Saeng, or the case of a murdered child in Kok Kok village, Mukdahan Province, where the media turned a villager suspected of the murder into the lead performer in a semi-reality news report. By contrast, issues that affect the Kingdom’s realpolitik like the Deep South insurgency or political issues are censored.
Supinya said it has been difficult and controversial when addressing the balance between regulation and the public interest. But cases when the media intrude on people who possibly pose no threat to them, like Luang Pu Saeng or in the Kok Kok incident, were clearly beyond NBTC regulations, unlike the political issues mentioned.
“This is the point where there must be a fine line between the media and consumers, and we must find the point of balance. You [the media] can ramp the ratings, but there is a line that you must not cross, and a ceiling that you must not break through. You must use public benefit as the norm, because if you take politics as the norm, you will collide with rights and liberties,” said Supinya.
Since 2014, free-to-air TV has shifted from an analog signal to another form known as digital TV that allows distribution to more outlets. Operators bid large sums at auction for a licence, regulated by the NBTC under the Act on the Organization to Assign Radio frequency and to Regulate the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Services B.E. 2553 (2010), known for its controversial provision of prohibiting content that damages ‘good morals’. The media is under constant pressure to make money to pay for instalments on the licence fee.
The coup in 2014 exacerbated the intense competition by censoring reporting on issues hostile to the junta. This has led to Voice TV, which is critical of the junta, being punished over 20 times. A politicised restriction has downplayed the competition in news content as the newsrooms have to avoid themselves being punished by committing a self-censorship or working on stories that would pose them no threat.
Supinya, however, said this excuse was no longer valid as the junta government has issued an order reducing the burden of licence fees.
Wannabe, untrained investigative journalists
The fact that a reporter used subterfuge to lure a monk with Alzheimer’s into misconduct is seen as a clear case of wrongdoing. But the firing of reporters performing their duty is seen by prosecutor Wutthichai Poomsanguan as cases where a complaint can be filed with the Labour Court.
Wutthichai warned the media that barging into private properties without receiving consent from the owners, or not being accompanied by the authorities with the mandate to do so may amount to a criminal intrusion.
The media companies have fired their employees and claimed innocence for themselves on the grounds that the reporters did not inform the newsroom what happened. This is unacceptable from Peerawat’s perspective.
The veteran editor related his experience of sending a reporter to expose bribe-taking in a temple, saying that the reporter had blended into the community for months, collecting evidence to the point where the editorial team could confirm the allegations. But the incident with Luang Pu Saeng, a well-known and venerated monk, was made public without checking the validity of the report; this is questionable. The editor should at least set the agenda that the reporter should cover, and also the legal provisions that they should be aware of.
“It’s time that the work process of editorial teams returns to the use of strong editing control. This will save the workers, save the organization, save the profession, and as I’ve emphasised, save society,” said Peerawat.
Toward a better media industry
Peerawat said there should be no excuse for the media to contravene professional ethics to violate others’ rights and liberties. The established media associations should keep these issues in mind and find a way to create incentives for the media to stay on a professional path, something like tax reductions or other financial relief.
Supinya, who has been a NBTC commissioner, said the NBTC has a budget to do this. It depends on the policy on how to spend it. She also urged a return to the tripartite roundtable between the media, audiences, and the NBTC as it has been a place for stakeholders in the media industry to address problems and understand each other, rather than waiting to hit each other hard once in a while.