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September 25, 2017

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Reporting on His Majesty:relations between Thai media and the late king

BANGKOK -- On Dec. 5, 2004, King Bhumibhol spoke for the first time about the role of the media. He said the media monitors and reflects what is going on in society, acting as a mirror for the government in power and society as a whole.

In the same message, he also talked candidly about himself, reiterating that as a king, he did not see himself as infallible — a king who could do no wrong in the ordinary sense of the word. He clearly said he was not above criticism. He added that he welcomed critical comments based on fact and objectivity.

For the Thai media, the King's comments were significant because he supported the media doing their job professionally in informing society. He was an avid newspaper reader, a veteran ham radio operator and an early user of computers. He often used computer graphics to compose his New Year cards and messages for the Thai people.

At the time, his comments reflected a media environment in which journalists were under stress. Most Thai journalists would agree that his stand on the media has had a positive impact on the media's role and reduced attempted state interventions. As far as I know, no Thai journalists have been charged with lese majeste, as they have simply abstained from reporting or writing about the King's personal life. Of late, there have been reports on his initiatives related to sustainable development and a sufficient economy.

It must be noted here that the King never gave any interviews to members of the Thai media. Journalists were used to reporting what he said verbatim during ceremonies such as at the opening of Parliament, or when he welcomed new batches of senior judges and ambassadors, and so on. Every year, all media outlets faithfully reported those speeches on his birthday and at New Year's Eve.

Through these remarks, the media interpreted what was on His Majesty's mind. The media community knew the King used his birthday to express his personal views, and inform the government and public about his hopes and expectations. His messages often called on the Thai people to reconcile and work together.

In the last few years of his life, those messages became more acute urging Thais to stay united.

Therefore, palace-media relations were best described as distant but correct. But it was different for the foreign media. Throughout his reign, the King granted several interviews to foreign correspondents and writers who were interested in Thailand and his royal projects and other works.

The most famous interview was conducted in 1979 with BBC television when he discussed a whole range of issues, including the fate of his elder brother, King Mahidol, as well as his duty and responsibility as King of Thailand. He also gave William Stevenson, the Canadian author, rare access to his daily life and various activities inside the Grand Palace.

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