Business, Finance & Economics

Thailand's front page horror show


BANGKOK — Each morning, Thailand’s newspaper racks offer a gallery of gore.

Few days pass without a corpse, face-down and blood-soaked, appearing on Thai newspapers’ front pages. Equally common are accident scenes, with unlucky drivers spilling lifelessly from their totaled cars.

The most recent Sunday edition of popular newspaper Khao Sod decorated its front page with this sensational cocktail: a meth dealer splayed dead beside a toilet, a married couple shot dead and slumped in their pick-up truck — and for comic relief, photos exposing a con artist who donned flight uniforms to deceive shopkeepers and women.

“They’re just trying to sell papers,” said Ratchanee Poowong, a Bangkok auto parts dealer. “The photos do attract your attention. You wonder, ay, what’s all this about?”

Now, a group of academics is petitioning Thai papers to choose restraint over grisly voyeurism. The professors, from six Thai universities, present a familiar set of complaints. Beyond arguing on grounds of taste, they say these images corrupt children or needlessly shame victims of violent crime.

Their campaign to tame the front page will be hard to win, said Yubol Benjarongkij, dean of the communication arts department at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“I won’t say we’ll be successful,” she said. “The (publishers) think these picture make big sales. It’s hard to change that belief.”

Even against a daily backdrop of crime scene photos, recent published images went beyond the pale, Yubol said. The professor was dismayed by pictures of charred bodies outside of the burned-down Santika dance hall, which made global headlines in January.

She was equally disturbed by photos of a suicide-by-hanging off the busy Rama IV bridge. Newspapers ran photos of the man’s decapitated head, severed by inertia after the jump and swinging eerily over onlookers below.

“Just the head alone? Hanging down like that? We didn’t need to see that picture,” Yubol said.

Still, as U.S. and other Western newspapers are withering, many Thai papers and their counterparts across Asia are thriving. Thailand’s most popular paper, Thai Rath, claims more than 1.2 million copies sold each day and as many as 25 million readers, who often pass the paper to friends and relatives.

Thai Rath publishes a mix of breaking news, political commentary, soap opera gossip and tales of the weird, such as a May 10 story of a villager gone berserk with a samurai sword. It far outpaces the roughly 80,000-circulation Matichon, a more-measured paper preferred by educated Thais. Outside of business-focused publications, other newspapers largely follow Thai Rath’s sensational mold.

“We have rural and urban people in Thailand, a variety of education levels,” said Kissada Kamyoung, a doctorate student studying comparative literature. “I don’t like the criminal pictures. To have breakfast in the morning and see that? Ugh.”

Newspaper buyers’ tolerance for gore can seem at odds with Westerners’ stereotype of Thais as ever-smiling, peaceful Buddhists. But as early as grade school, Thai children begin learning that “gerd, gae, jeb, dtai” — birth, aging, pain and death — are inevitable.

Perhaps Thai people, Ratchanee said, are more comfortable staring death in the face. “It’s a truth no one can run away from,” she said.

The academics petitioning Thai newspapers from “going overboard” with hardcore images will stop short of proposing government intervention, Yubol said. They still promote press freedom and acknowledge that, ultimately, the choice lies with publishers.

“They need something better than another law,” Yubol said. “They need ethics.”

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