Chiranuch Premchaiporn has introduced a news and knowledge strategy that, by combining new media technologies with a flexible organization, ensures the free flow of information and exchange of diverse perspectives. Her online newspaper, Prachatai, is forging a more inclusive media environment, engaging tens of thousands of marginalized citizens and interest groups, at a moment when most of the Thailand’s media is moving in the opposite direction. Because of Prachatai, informed and balanced discussion of issues is surviving in Thailand.
The New Idea
Chiranuch is using the Internet to preserve and advance core news and knowledge values in the face of continuing political efforts to systemically control and disrupt information. She is demonstrating that, while Internet technologies themselves are not solutions to freedom of expression, access to information, and quality knowledge, a strategy that shrewdly combines those technologies with powerful content and a flexible, decentralized organization can engage people with information as never before.
Chiranuch’s Prachatai.com platform has blurred traditional roles of expert and news subject, giving voice even to people historically marginalized by politics, economics, or race. Beyond delivering information in new ways, Chiranuch has also created a public space for open public discourse in Thai society. Even more popular than the Prachatai news website, the non-partisan Prachatai web board of opinions is used by hundreds of thousands of Thais per week to conduct interactive discussion and debate. With a growing community of citizen reporters and ever-increasing reader interaction, Prachatai newspaper is a testament to the fertility of “cyberliberty”—free access to information and freedom of expression on the Internet—despite increasing censorship of new media in Thailand.
Although information technology has been called a new era, today’s generation of readers face the same journalistic limitations as they turn from print media to the Internet. As before, business and government influences still determine the news agenda. People without powerful backing are often spoken for by others, and many times fail to even make the headlines. Rural communities, laborers, ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups are presented as victims or news subjects—rather than as actors with distinctive voices.
Across the world, newspaper, radio, and television editorial boards and journalists historically have determined the subjects for discussion, while readers have had little to no room for expression or debate. In Thailand, media recipients have been further limited by the amount of information they can access. In times of political instability, all forms of mass media in Thailand are pressured to self-censor or provide limited perspectives. Even on the Internet, arguably the most liberal form of mass media with cheap and instant ability to acquire and distribute information, the open exchange of information and opinions is stifled by state orders to close down web sites and, in some cases, press criminal charges.
For the past three years, new media users in Thailand have lived in the shadow of the Computer Crimes Act of 2007. Ratified by a military-appointed legislative assembly following the 2006 coup, this law has been used to monitor and prosecute online political activity. Five people have been accused of disseminating comments or images that defame the royal institution and threaten national security. One of whom has been sentenced to ten years in prison. Of some 100,000 web pages closed by government order over the past three years, many have coincided with political events. In May 2010, 1,150 websites were shut down in the days following a military dispersal of protesters in Bangkok, which resulted in a contested number of deaths and missing people.
Contrary to the intentions of law enforcement authorities, however, the effort to control online expression has only catalyzed Internet users’ hunger for the exchange of alternative information and views. For instance, Thai membership of the Facebook interactive online community grew tenfold between January 2009 and January 2010—from 200,000 to 2 million users—and increased to 3 million users by mid-2010, coinciding with political unrest and state control of web sites. The increasing demand for free online expression has been made possible by the recent availability of affordable Internet connections, internet applications on mobile phones, and internet cafes in every peripheral town across Thailand.
Chiranuch has created a news website called Prachatai.com, meaning ‘sovereign citizens,’ home to an interactive online newspaper that gives voice to otherwise marginalized people, views, and issues.
Established in 2004, the 10-person organization emphasizes a horizontal work structure that is focused on enabling citizen networks to determine the news agenda. The Prachatai team has trained approximately 100 volunteer citizen writers in basic journalism and multimedia reporting; collectively, these journalists contribute more than half of the website’s content. One Prachatai editor is assigned solely to “community and network development,” to link with a broad range of grassroots organizations and distant rural communities. This active outreach work has allowed the editorial team to report on many overlooked stories—at least 10 per day—including national coverage of labor, environmental and other public interest issues. Community networks of citizen reporters’ link with one another through Prachatai, catalyzing collective awareness that marginalized issues are in fact concerns of the majority, and becoming themselves active agents in the production and distribution of news. Widely accepted as an independent and trustworthy source of information, Prachatai’s readership has grown exponentially over the years, to a current estimate of 20,000 unique visitors daily. Chiranuch recognizes the unique quality of the Internet, which allows for immediate interaction and open debate. To encourage active reader participation, she created a space for comments at the end of news stories, at the time an unconventional practice in Thai journalism. Chiranuch soon discovered that many readers visited Prachatai to read and respond to other readers’ comments, perhaps even more so than to read the news reports.
In 2008 this realization led to the creation of an independent website, the Prachatai webboard, for unedited exchanges of views and information. As website administrator, Chiranuch refrains from deleting unpopular comments or discussion topics. She has had to participate only in the occasional discussion to remind fellow users to respect minority viewpoints. As a result, the Prachatai webboard has become a public space that welcomes everyone, unlike other public forums available in Thai language which are heavily edited according to the political climate. Communities of people have emerged from this public space, evident in many users adopting Prachatai as their online surnames. In 2010, there were at least 30,000 registered users, 300 to 400 new topics daily and thousands of daily responses at the Prachatai webboard. This portion of Prachatai received two to three times more visitors than the news section, at 150,000 to 300,000 users per week. Chiranuch encourages Prachatai’s reporters to follow discussions, constantly reinforcing the central conceit that readers determine the editorial agenda. In fact, many reader comments have been formally published as opinion pieces on the news website, and others have been the basis of further research for news articles.
Today, Prachatai has become a reference for some mainstream media. During the 2010 demonstrations, Thai mass media—including a major newspaper and a national public television station—referenced alternative information and commentaries from Prachatai.com. The issues raised by Prachatai are presented to create balance and diversity, as most mass media in Thailand is still owned by the military, or by businesses that conduct self-censorship to avoid political and financial consequences.
Prachatai has been called a threat to national security, because of its firm public commitment to providing space for diverse information and open debate. During the 2010 demonstrations and the ongoing declaration of State of Emergency, Prachatai online newspaper and Prachatai webboard were listed among the 36 websites to be shut down for national security purposes. Mobile phone operators voluntarily revoked Prachatai’s text messaging news service. But readers seemed to seek information from Prachatai more than ever. Chiranuch has altered Prachatai’s web address eight times, leading government censors on a cat-and-mouse chase, as a public statement that freedom of expression will not be easily contained on the Internet. She has also publicized tools for users to circumvent blocks, in addition to creating alternative ways to access and contribute to Prachatai news through online social networks like Facebook and twitter, which are more difficult to censor in Thailand.
Chiranuch has been charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act, as administrator of a website that contains reader comments that defame the royal institution and thus are seen as a threat to national security. She denies the allegations, having fully cooperated with government censors in removing those comments when they came to her attention. In March 2009, Chiranuch was arrested at her office on 10 counts of computer crime violations, facing a maximum of 75 years imprisonment. Released on bail, she continues to develop Prachatai into a model of free flowing information and exchange. Chiranuch’s case is being watched closely by cyberliberty advocates in Southeast Asia, Europe and North America, including the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Reporters sans Frontieres, Freedom House, Opennet Initiative, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Her case is believed to set the precedent for freedom of online expression in Thailand.
Chiranuch has always believed in the power of media to alter real-life behavior. Prior to Prachatai, she worked for 13 years as an AIDS awareness campaign officer. Back in the 1990s, public health campaigns in Thailand publicized fear instead of information, labeling certain populations as high-risk and tacitly blamed them for the cause of the AIDS. Chiranuch’s organization was ahead of its time, promoting facts as the first step toward prevention. With her educational background in journalism and mass communications, she designed educational media and campaigns—mediums ranging from print media, radio, photography, and short film contests—to alter deep-rooted individual and collective behavior and perceptions.
Experienced in engaging a broad range of information recipients, Chiranuch has worked with diverse populations ranging from children with HIV, rural communities, to media practitioners themselves. Despite having left the field of AIDS work, she is still active in an independent partnership of AIDS workers that she co-founded, called We Understand, to ensure media sensitivity in portraying children with HIV. In addition, she co-founded a Women’s Working Group on AIDS, in an effort to establish an alternative awareness of sexual health among Thai women.
Chiranuch has brought much of her experience to bear on Prachatai, a more controversial effort to alter public consciousness. Her ability to empower marginalized groups through information, by converting fear into open dialogue, has contributed to the effectiveness of Prachatai as a forum for transforming readers into active participants.
In May 2011, Chiranuch received the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, for her commitment to free press despite personal threats and political pressure.