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Time for media to do some soul-searching

November 24, 2000

FOLLOWING a 22-hour hostage ordeal, which ended with nine jail-breakers killed in a dramatic shoot-out, the real hero to emerge from this bloody event was, you bet, TV Channel 9.

It was the only TV channel to have captured live on camera, at 7:30am yesterday, the bloody episode near the Thai-Burmese border in Kanchanaburi. One of Channel 9's announcers triumphantly issued a message of self-congratulation, telling the nationwide audience about how great its film crew had been in their hot pursuit of the hijackers. You only had to tune into Channel 9 to witness this five-minutes of spectacular killing in the comfort of your own home.

Unfortunately, this self-proclaimed act of heroism was typical of an era of media arrogance and insensitivity.

For while Channel 9 was busy congratulating itself over its live broadcast of the shoot-out, it failed to give due credit to the real heroes - the awesome police force from the Naresuan camp, in Prachuab Khiri Khan.

These special Thai commandos, dressed totally in black and carrying automatic rifles, executed their raid almost flawlessly. They killed the Burmese inmates instantly. After the operation, they returned to their camp incognito. They were the same team which took on the God's Army rebels and killed of all of its members in Ratchaburi Hospital earlier this year.

Two hostages were rescued unharmed from this daring operation: Sema Kummanon, a deputy chief of the Samut Sakhon prison and Lek Phothong, a Thai prison inmate forced to join the Burmese jailbreakers. Unfortunately, prison chief Somwong Siriwej was severely wounded in the ambush. He remained in a coma as of yesterday.

Put yourself in the hearts and minds of Somwong's family, particularly his wife and his son. They must have been hurt badly after learning about Somwong's condition - while watching a gleeful Channel 9 boast of its 'triumph'.

On Wednesday, the hostage crisis claimed the life of Don Chitthongpan, who was shot dead by one of the inmates. His wife, Rangsima Chitthongpan, almost collapsed under the weight of sorrow. This real story of the loss of a loved one was under-reported.

Over these past two days, the Thai people were presented with this hostage ordeal as if it was a sort of entertainment programme. On Wednesday evening, Ruam Duay Chuai Kan ("Helping Each Other"), a local radio station anchored by Thanom Onketphol, undertook to mediate the crisis. The radio station turned itself into a command centre through which negotiations were conducted between the Burmese inmates and authorities. The voice of Win San, the group leader, was broadcast live nationwide.

Then an army of reporters set out on the trail of the jail breakers from the prison in Samut Sakhon to Ratchaburi, before ending at Kanchanaburi. It was confusing all along the way as reporters quarrelled with police about their right to cover the event "ringside" - citing the public's right to know, to see and to hear. Under intense competition to capture the drama, reporters and photographers hardly gave any regard to the police's difficulties handling the crisis.

The media has become all too self-important.

Earlier this week, an iTV reporter and her TV cameraman were attacked by a group of Democrat supporters. The behaviour of the Democrat supporters was unacceptable. Yet there was widespread condemnation by newspaper associations over the safety of the media and obstructions to their profession. The prime minister, as a Democrat, is required to apologise to iTV.

Other professions do not get the first-class treatment that journalists do.

In the US, the media is undertaking some self-examination. CNN and other news networks were forced to retract their calls when they first gave Al Gore a win in Florida, before handing it to Bush, and then retracting it altogether when it became apparent the presidential race was nearly a dead-heat - and too close to call. Now the TV networks are soul-searching as to whether they had crossed the border of appropriateness in the rush to be the first to name the next president of the United States.

It's time the Thai media undertake the same soul-searching about overstepping the line of appropriate behaviour. Journalists and reporters are members of society. They, too, are ordinary walking mortals.




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