Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry redacts old news releases

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The Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry changed a contentious word in 18 old news releases still available on its website, apparently in reaction to a news article, effectively redacting a record without acknowledgement of the edit.

For most of my time as a reporter in Phnom Penh, I have been covering the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple. The temple belongs to Cambodia by a final and unequivocal decision of the International Court of Justice issued in 1962, no question about that. Even the Thai government’s official position is to not contest the temple’s ownership. The dispute is over 4.6 square kilometers of land (mainly jungle with leftover landmines) near the temple. The legal and political details would bore my non-Cambodian readers, but suffice it to say the dispute, which has historical implications dating back decades if not centuries but heated up last July, has fed deep nationalistic sentiment on both sides of the border.

I noticed in the months spent reporting on this that Thai officials increasingly used the Thai name for the Cambodian temple —Phra Viharn— when I’d heard (and read) them used ‘Preah Vihear’ before. That’s the Cambodian term and also the one most frequently used in English/French, as far as I’ve seen. The name issue surfaced as a problem in border negotiations back in November, and again last week. I considered writing about that, but the Bangkok Nation beat me to it with a quite well written article on Feb 4. They showed that the Thai government frequently used “Preah Vihear” in the past, as recently as in July press releases still available on the ministry Web site.

Well, lo and behold, when I went to look for those uses of the offending word, I (almost) couldn’t find them. (Almost) every use of the words “Preah Vihear” had been redacted and changed to the Thai spelling “Phra Viharn”! It seems somebody went through the trouble of editing the public historical records of official ministry communication. How do I know this? How do I know my memory isn’t shaky or the Nation reporter wasn’t lying? It seems the Thai MFA’s Web editing software automatically updates the datestamp when the file is changed. If that’s on purpose, I commend the architect of this system for their care for transparency. So all those communiqués are still in chronological order of their original release but with a new datestamp of “February 4, 2009.” Just see the screengrab.

Thai Foreign Ministry website, press releases page 9, as captured on Feb 5, 2009

Thai Foreign Ministry website, press releases page 9, as captured on Feb 5, 2009

I counted 18 news releases modified. Apparently someone didn’t know about the “Find and Replace” function because a few “Preah Vihear” references remain within the text of at least two communiqués I went through. I know PR isn’t journalism, especially government PR, but the whole process just seems dishonest to me, and a bit sneaky (besides smacking of limited Web competence). PR has ethical rules, too, and redacting history surely doesn’t qualify as ethical. I’ll let you be the judge.


Written by Isabelle Roughol

Wednesday, 11 February, 2009 at 10:36

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