Thai media names British gang-rape victim, raises serious ethical issues

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 20, 2013 The decision to publish the full name and personal documents of a Scottish student who was gang raped in the southern Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat raises serious questions about ethics in Thai media when it comes to reporting crimes.

Reports of the incident emerged in the Thai media Monday, with police confirming that the 20-year-old was dragged off the street and assaulted by four  suspects after she left a night club the previous evening.

The Daily News website ran a short story on the incident, accompanied by a copy of the victim's university identity card that showed her face and her full name.

Several reader comments below the story strongly criticized the Daily News for fully revealing the woman's identity. The coverage was also condemned on Twitter, though plenty of people included links to the offending article with their tweets. The Daily News editors later removed the image and her name from the article. However, there have been reports that the news channel TNN24 also showed her personal details and photo.

This insensitive coverage comes only a few days after the case of a 12-year-old ethnic Karen girl that was kidnapped and tortured by a couple in Kamphaeng Phet province hit the national headlines.

(READ MORE: Thailand: Plight of tortured Karen girl shocks a nation and Couple jump bail: Thai justice system fails tortured Karen girl by Kaewmala)

In this case, local police have had the girl stripped her almost naked to document her mutilated body after years of torture by the couple in front of members of the media. While the pictures did not show her face, it is still highly questionable - if not un-dignifying - by the local police to parade the girl in front of media and further traumatize the victim.

This prompted a response by the international children rights organization Plan International, which wrote in a column in the Bangkok Post:

As adults and as human beings, we - journalists as well as civil servants and law enforcers - have an obligation to protect children's rights. In the case of this Karen girl, even though her face was obscured and her name was withheld (all positive steps), we failed to protect her dignity and have subjected her to the shame of appearing near naked in a room full of strangers. We've put her under a spotlight, stripped her of her clothes, her humanity and her dignity, and objectified her in the name of raising awareness. (...)

Journalists are the last line of defence for children who have been scarred by their ordeals. In this instance the journalists could have chosen not to take photos, interrogate or otherwise participate in an event that would deepen the harm this girl had already suffered. A female official from the provincial authorities could have photographed the girl's hands, arms or legs in a private room and then shared those pictures with the media to avoid further harm to the child.

"Media needs guidance on reporting of child abuse", Bangkok Post, February 18, 2013

This also applies to the case of the British sexual assault victim and, indeed, all victims of crime in Thailand. The media may have access to sensitive images and identity information, but this does not mean they have to publish them.

While this is not a solely a Thai phenomenon (many European tabloids have done similar), many media professionals here display a total disregard for victims' personal right to privacy, and not even for a misguided belief that the public's right to know trumps personal privacy. It is also the authorities' fault to disclose such details (some of which may be critical to an running investigation and successful prosecution) to the media.

Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency among Thailand's media to take the information provided by the authorities and reproduce it without question or any real context. The reason why so many Thai-language newspaper items read like dry protocols of what has happened is because they mostly actually are unreflected, regurgitated quotes and soundbites by whoever was just talking. A typical introduction to a story in a mainstream Thai newspaper is: “On this date, at that time, at that place, that person, whose rank or position is this, said this,” followed by a couple of more soundbites.

The Thai Journalists' Association was not available for comment at the time of publishing.

Thai media newsrooms really have to ask themselves the following questions: What does it add to coverage to necessitate the publishing of the victim’s full personal details? What more harm and humiliation can be caused to the victim of the crime by revealing the full name and picture? What function do journalists, reporters and editors still serve, if they do not prioritize the information given in order to tell what is really important and thus in the process fail to protect the victims of crimes?

UPDATE 1: The Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has responded to our inquiry:

It is unfortunate that this lapse of ethics occurred. Our concern is not only for Thailand but also other countries in the region where colleagues have noted similar lax in observing ethical standards. It is important for the media not to further traumatise the survivor, that the role of the media is to report and expose the issue, but to protect the dignity of the survivors". The media needs to understand that ethical responsibility is part of human rights.

Kulachada Chaipipat Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

UPDATE 2: Mark Kent, the British Ambassador to Thailand has issued this short statement to Siam Voices:

I and other Ambassadors have on several occasions set out our view to media and authorities about the need to respect victim confidentiality, especially for serious crimes and incidents. This includes protection of personal data and images

Mark Kent British Ambassador to Thailand

Indeed, he has raised this issue before with his Canadian counterpart Philip Calvert during a visit to Phuket earlier this year. It is also worth noting that the ambassador met with senior editors of the largest mass circulation newspaper Thai Rath yesterday afternoon and has certainly raised that issue with them as well: