EDITORIAL: Media is not a PR tool for government

Editorial Desk

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Junta cabinet needs to earn public attention through creative and interesting accomplishments.

Governments in Thailand come and go and all of them work hard to try to strike a good chord with the national and foreign media, often asking for sympathetic and understanding coverage.Whether they came to power through the ballot box or through the use of tanks and guns, they eventually will have to find ways to engage with the nagging media. 

The top brass who are used to barking out orders are not familiar with questions. The current junta chief, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, is a prime example of a career military man whose on-the-job public relations training hasn’t been very successful.In fact, he has become the butt of jokes for many people who are not really amused by his Friday night speeches that takes precedence over their preferred prime time shows and soap operas.

These speeches provide useful information, he may insist. But people’s TV preferences are more trivial than the junta would like them to be and, like it or not, the generals will have to respect that.

That might be hard to ask of a bunch of men who, twice in the past 10 years, disrespected the 

people’s mandate and seized power in the name of – of all the things – democracy. And like everything else, the devil is in the details – how to govern.

The Thai military is smart enough to realise that they need an independent press to cover and give weight to whatever they say. But they have yet to find the sophistication to engage the public and the media in a way that enhances their credibility and position.Yes, they come up with friendly words like “cooperation” – something that government spokesman and Public Relations Department chief Lt-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd reiterated just before the weekend as he reached out to the media.

Sansern’s initiative has been heavily criticised by members of the media, who view it as “regulating and interfering” with their public responsibilities.The issue has emerged after some media and social media users circulated an August 15 letter inviting editors of all media outlets to meet on Wednesday to discuss preparations for the Cabinet trip, including news reporting.

Sansern had said this was not “regulating” the media as has been criticised, but “asking for cooperation” to produce news scoops concerning Cabinet members on the trip, set for August 19 to 22.

Sansern’s reply to the criticism was that past news reports mainly covered the prime minister, despite the fact that other Cabinet members also joined him on trips. People need to also hear from other Cabinet members about Thailand’s problems and their efforts to tackle them, he said.

He was quickly reminded that he has neither the right nor the invitation to stick his neck where it doesn’t belong.

If the Cabinet members want their work televised, perhaps they should be the ones who come up with something creative and interesting enough to attract the public’s attention.Sansern and the country’s top brass that he serves need to understand that asking the media to report on underrated ministers amounts to interference in the decision-making process of news outlet.The media have a professional responsibility to report truthfully and hold those in power and interest groups accountable, not to serve as a public-relations tool for government.

Moreover, reporting on the government’s work, or the Cabinet members in this case, should be carried out in the spirit of checks-and-balances. The idea is to scrutinise whether public tax money is spent properly, which means accountability and deliverables must be satisfactory.

If the junta is not able to deliver the goods and services, perhaps they should stay in the barracks and not come out and play politics.