The newspaper of record’s decision to uncritically broadcast a closed session with Russia’s ambassador to Thailand yesterday has been met with anger and disbelief.
People took turns disparaging Bangkok Post throughout a 90-minute live stream during which Russian Ambassador Evgeny Tomikhin repeated demonstrably false statements without any context or fact-checking.
“Bangkok Post should not give Putin and his puppets a stage to continue spreading lies,” one viewer wrote unsparingly. “Bangkok Post should be ashamed!” Another was no more restrained: “Shame on you! For allowing this murdering mouthpiece to spout his lies on your platform. Disgraceful journalism!”
A professional code binds news agencies and reporters to challenge statements and check facts rather than allow their platforms to be used as conduits for misinformation. And while the ambassador allowed the select few reporters invited to pose questions, one attendee said they were instructed in advance to “be polite.”
What transpired over 90 minutes was a droning monotone of alternative-fact talking points long on West-bashing but short on reality. Tomikhin parroted Moscow’s preferred language, describing his country’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” and nagging those present to heed Russian news reports.
After thanking reporters, tongue in cheek, for coming to hear “Russian propaganda,” Tomikhin discouraged reliance on Western wire services and noted that Russian news agencies had been blocked “because they don’t want people to know the truth.” He made no mention of the fact that the remaining vestiges of a free press have been stamped out in the wake of the invasion, with use of the word “war” punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“Russian armed forces try to avoid casualties among civilians. So [this is] why Russian armed forces [have been] moving forward so accurately. Of course in any war it is not possible to avoid any casualties among civilians,” Tomikhin said, setting himself up for possible prosecution back home. Then he quickly shifted into whataboutism about the U.S. war in Iraq, and presented unhinged speculation that birds would soon be flying from Ukraine loaded with American-made bioweapons to rain death onto his homeland.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior staff writer for Khaosod English, said that they were told no foreign members of the press were allowed due to COVID concerns, and a reporter from the Associated Press was turned away at the door.
Despite the admirable concern for public health, Tomikhin wore no mask and reporters were not required to submit to ATK tests.
“Basically, the Russians wanted to feed the Thai press and the public with their own views,” Pravit told Coconuts today. “They have a right to do so. Obviously they know that more than half of the Thai press are against the invasion of Ukraine.”
No foreign journalists were invited to the press conference by the Russian Ambassador today. Amb Tomikhin said there weren't enough space, especially considering #COVID19 measures. Outside some staged a #StandingWithUkraine protest. #WhatsHappeningInThailand #Thailand #Russia pic.twitter.com/tk2YLbjvwT— Pravit Rojanaphruk (@PravitR) March 15, 2022
He noted Tomikhin’s opening comments, during which the ambassador said he was aware some of those present had been posting messages supportive of Ukraine on social media.
Though Pravit agreed that news agencies have an obligation to provide context and correct misinformation, he said they also have a right to publish – or live stream – as they choose.
“I stand for press freedom, so while I wouldn’t be in total agreement, I think the Bangkok Post has a right,” he said. “But at the same time [they should] provide context and fact-checks.”
“I think Thai news is hungry for whatever news they can get, and trying to get into that room without double- or triple-checking,” he added. “But I still respect the rights of anyone to speak, and the Russian ambassador has the right to express himself as well.”
We wanted to ask Bangkok Post about its unusual decision to cover the presser via Facebook Live – a medium it doesn’t normally use – and what its policies are on presenting propaganda uncritically – but Editor Soonruth Bunyamanee has not responded to messages seeking comment sent last night and this morning.
It’s been a growing concern as the newspaper, which has been suffering huge losses and anemic circulation, has increasingly given its platform over to propagandists – sometimes for money. (Pravit said the Russians offered no compensation, “not even a glass of water” for attending.)
Last year the paper began prominently publishing faintly disclosed press releases trumpeting things like the ethical prowess of the nation’s largest conglomerates. It ran pro-Beijing opinion pieces among its news content.
Then, in December, it published a story in the business section that savaged the United States for its “chaotic and destructive” slights against Thailand and presented China as, literally, Thailand’s Big Brother. It admonished the kingdom to “keep things peaceful and trade with everyone who will buy your goods and don’t concern yourselves with political ideologies.”
The talking points in the piece, which was also not labeled opinion, dovetailed neatly with Beijing foreign policy. Read the small (tiny) print and find it labeled “Sponsored Content,” meaning someone paid the Post to publish it. Nowhere was the sponsor disclosed, as is standard.
In a recent interview, former Editor in Chief Umesh Pandey said that he was not pressured to run any propaganda during his two-year tenure that ended in 2018.
“I think they knew very well who I was, they knew very well they could not manipulate or push me to do things,” he said.
But he did not understand why the paper did not disclose who paid for the pro-China piece.
“If it’s sponsored content, then it’s sponsored content,” he said. “You write who the person is. No propaganda pieces, no matter who it’s coming from. If it’s coming from somebody, then you have to say who it was from. That was at least the policy when I was there.”