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Heinrich Boll Foundation hosts ‘Citizen Journalists’ seminar

Heinrich Boll Foundation hosts ‘Citizen Journalists’ seminar

At the recent seminar on citizen journalism hosted by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, the speakers were Nanta Benjalasirak and Chuwas Rueksirisuk, editors from Prachatai and Chiang Mai University Faculty of Law lecturer Assoc Prof Somchai Prichasilapakul.

Elena Edwards
The second in the series of 3 seminars hosted by the Heinrich Boll Foundation during their 10th anniversary year was held August 28, with the title, ‘Citizen Journalists: Social and Political Agenda-Setting Abilities and Emerging Challenges’.
Invited speakers included two editors from the online alternative news website Prachatai, Nanta Benjalasirak and Chuwas Rueksirisuk, with Chiang Mai University Faculty of Law lecturer Assoc Prof Somchai Prichasilapakul. The discussion was moderated by CMU’s Dr. Jiraporn Witayasakpan from the Faculty of Mass Communication.
A lively discussion resulted, with the conclusion that Thai citizen journalism as a whole needed to convince the general public and conventional media representatives that its writers conform to journalistic ethics in accuracy and research in order to become accepted as an alternative media tool.
Citizen journalism, the alternative reportage by local writers of stories previously ignored by the mainstream media, was initiated by dissatisfaction with the direction of conventional journalism, and began with the birth of the online blog.
According to the first speaker at the seminar, the Prachatai editor, Nanta Benjalasirak, the phenomenon began in Thailand in 1997 when the new constitution was established, with citizen journalists emerging from popular organisations and NGOs countrywide. With increasing internet access throughout the kingdom, the general public no longer needed to rely exclusively on conventional media outlets, and were able to post their own stories and opinions online.
In reply, Chuwas Rueksirisuk, also an editor at Prachatai, noted that, after the 2006 coup, citizen journalism had expanded to include members of the general public who considered that their rights, particularly in the political sphere, were being compromised by the restrictions on conventional media texts. Topics posted by citizen journalists included many which had not been considered suitable for publication, thus challenging the traditions of journalism as many citizen journalist articles were being compiled from online blogs. Chuwas pointed out that one problem with this development is that such reporters need to learn the requisite skills in order to maximise their readership and get their message across.
Assoc Prof Somchai Prichasilapakul, a lecturer at CMU’s Faculty of Law, stated that although he obtained news mainly from newspapers, he agreed that Prachatai is an alternative news site which allows people the space for communication. The question, however, is the amount of change such a facility can bring, and whether its content can be disseminated amongst mainstream outlets in order to reach a wider audience. At present, the alternative media in Thailand does not have the capacity to start trends as it does in the West, even although websites are attracting many former readers of conventional newspapers. Somchai admitted that citizen journalism represents free expression, but considered that, as people only read what they want to, it has no power to set agendas due to its limited appeal.
Chuwas’s belief, however, is that citizen journalism in Thailand has great potential, but needs the expansion of internet services to all levels of society in order to progress and become a powerful tool. ‘The internet is the future’, he said, adding that, ‘If it is to be a factor for social change, people need to have skills as well as supporting mechanisms. But this is not going to happen soon’.
According to Nanta, the alternative media, both on and offline, needs to configure a method by which it can expand into diverse communities. Citizen journalists, mainly local residents, do have ethics, but are perceived by the mainstream media as unreliable. In reply, Somchai proposed that citizen journalism does need to be branded with credibility, and that its journalists should be trained to specialise in certain aspects of news, as has, for example, the Itsara News Centre in the South, which has gained credibility from its ethical and correct reportage of Deep South situations.