An accomplished journalist, Suchada Chakpisute has established an independent news agency that uses mainstream media to amplify the voices of Thailand's poor.
The New Idea
Suchada sees that mainstream media in Thailand caters to what the public likes to see–and buy–often at the expense of providing in-depth analysis of issues, especially those that shape the lives of the poor. To counter this trend, she has established Thailand's first independent news agency. Instead of disseminating articles through alternative media, which attracts a small, typically intellectual and already-informed audience, Prachaddharma News Net takes advantage of established media to reach a large, diverse audience. It distributes daily and weekly news stories to subscribers in Thailand's existing media network–a network that reaches most of the country's sixty-two million people. PNN works through a nationwide network of volunteers, academics, civil society workers, and investigative journalists to identify news and write stories. Suchada hopes that by working closely with newspapers, television, and radio, PNN will encourage mainstream media to responsibly report on issues relating to the poor.
The mainstream media in Thailand pays little attention to the needs and contributions of the poor. To meet the demands of the bottom line, commercial media increasingly plays the role of entertaining, rather than educating, the public. Reports on fashion trends and celebrity lifestyles receive greater emphasis than news stories that deepen the public's understanding of what really goes on in the country. The nation's poor–an estimated eight million people who live below the national poverty line (according to a recent UNDP publication)–do not have a voice in commercial media. They appear in sensationalized form, reinforcing the popular notion of the poor as rabble–too coarse to deserve empathy, too ignorant to help themselves.
To cite a recent example, over two hundred members of a national coalition of poor people campaigned against a proposed dam project that would adversely affect their communities in the north. They camped on the government house lawn in Bangkok and organized nonviolent protests. They did this for ninety-nine days. Yet the event received almost no attention from the media until the situation reached a violent climax. Even then, few media sources attempted to explain the issues underlying the incident.
To be sure, civil society organizations disseminate their own version of biased journalism, frequently serving as an NGO propaganda machine. Limited by their own jargon, and depending on NGO channels for disseminating the news, they fail to reach people who live outside the civil society orbit. Additionally, as civil society workers are not trained journalists, they often lack the technical skill to attract and maintain the interest of readers who may be encountering a complex topic for the first time. Instead, they produce for an elite audience already in the know about the host of injustices that shape poor people's lives, leaving most Thai people in the dark about the social and economic forces that make and keep these people poor.
Suchada is reaching into poor communities to identify news stories. She is building a network of community leaders and members, civil society workers, journalists, academics, and others. In addition, she is encouraging and training people at the community or village level to become news providers, and to use PNN to voice concerns or opinions. While most call PNN staff with story leads at this point, Suchada's goal is to train them to write the news themselves.
Building a skilled volunteer group takes time, but Suchada is starting with free workshops for volunteers. She facilitates the workshops, accompanied by guest speakers from the PNN network, including well-known professors and journalists. In the past year, she has conducted two two-day workshops, attracting sixty participants in Chiang Mai and thirty in Mae Hong Son. A third training is scheduled, to be attended by one hundred twenty trainees. Suchada hopes that with time and support from PNN staff, volunteers will assume leadership roles in the organization and will set up regional nodes throughout the country.
Following leads from volunteers and community members, PNN staff shape the news into articles, a task that often takes Suchada to the field for further probing and investigation. The articles treat a range of topics articulated by community members as critical–public health, HIV/AIDS, ethnic minority rights, natural resource management, women and culture, agriculture, community rights and economic development. On a daily schedule, PNN staff sends articles to subscribers, who may print them (with the PNN credit) or follow up on the issues with their own staff. From February to July of 2001, PNN sent 112 news stories to subscribers, of which 30 were published; 112 headline articles, of which 9 were published; and 16 in-depth articles, of which 2 were published.
Suchada admits that she has a long way to go, but this is certainly a start. In addition to reaching readers in Thailand, she plans to work through Thai embassies abroad to attract the attention and support of international audiences.Suchada feels strongly that PNN should operate as a business both to maintain its professional image and to avoid dependence on sometimes fickle donor agencies. In a fundraising effort that she is currently repeating, Suchada sold ownership shares to individuals, academic institutions, and subscribers to secure the initial capital. At present, PNN has attracted six of the nine media subscribers Suchada estimates she needs to reach the break-even point. These subsribers are three leading newspapers, a national television channel, an educational institutional, and a major corporation. PNN's business charter dictates that future profits will support the development of community-based communication, including local news and radio.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Suchada grew up in Bangkok. Her father, a cobbler, earned a modest income for the family from his shop in town. He and Suchada's mother taught to their children values of integrity, justice, equality, and social responsibility. The youngest of four children, all girls, Suchada was dressed and treated like a boy until she was ten years old. This treatment, while customary in many Chinese families with no male heirs, troubled her greatly and inspired a life-long interest in gender and gender rights. Suchada identified her skill as a writer early in life. In grade two, she published a newsletter, and a few years later, wrote a novel, which she shared with friends.
The only person in her family to pursue a university education, Suchada enrolled at Thammasat University, one of Thailand's leading universities and the heart of the student movement of the 1970s. During her first year at university, she joined a theater arts group that performed nationwide, presenting plays that focused public attention on the political abuses and corruption characteristic of Thailand's military government at the time. Suchada's professional experience, both as a journalist and as a business woman, is varied and extensive. In 1984, she founded the monthly feature magazine Sarakhadee, which enjoys continuing appeal to readers interested in social and environmental themes. During its initial three years, she worked around the clock, grabbing a nap in a sleeping bag at the office when exhaustion overtook her. Six years after its launch, in 1990, the magazine broke even. Suchada moved on, launching a children's environmental education magazine and working on a national energy reduction campaign.
Throughout her professional life, Suchada has fostered collaboration between the media and civil society organizations and has written extensively on issues relating to poverty, culture, environment, and governance. In 2000, responding to what she saw as a critical need for an independent news agency that amplifies the voice of the poor and provides unbiased coverage, Suchada launched PNN. She manages its operations from her office in Chiang Mai.