Ms Hathairat Phaholtap (Wist) works with the Thai PBS Television as a senior reporter at their investigation desk. She is also a human rights defender and a documentary filmmaker who is dedicated to presenting human rights issues, especially during a time where press freedom in Thailand had been restricted and freedom of expression was limited.
Phaholtap recently got recognition from Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for her work. In 2014, the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was deposed in a military coup-de tat and Thai PBS, along with 24 other television channels, were shut down by the military. Phaholtap recorded videos of herself reporting the turn of events in the streets of Bangkok and uploaded them on social media—Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. In the absence of mainstream media reports, these online videos went viral.
In an exchange over email with EngageMedia she tells her story of courage by presenting the truth to the people of Thailand. Below are excerpts from the interview.
EM: How did it all start?
Wist: In 1999, I wanted to be a writer and went to study communications at a university in Bangkok. After graduation from university, I got a job in a local newspaper as a journalist. For seven years I worked as a reporter covering usually politics. Then I decided to move to television because I thought that newspapers were becoming less relevant. As I started to work in TV, I discovered that I’m passionate about presenting the news on TV.
EM: Can you tell us in details about some of your notable films?
Wist: I do not think anyone of my films is more or less relevant than the other. I like all of them because I dedicated all my energy working on them. However, there are 3-4 films that were impactful and were able to make a change in society. The first one is the story about the conflict and peace in the southern border provinces of Thailand. Produced 5 years ago, this film was about a medical student who was detained by authorities and was not being treated fairly. Two weeks after I presented the film, the medical student was released and now he is a doctor at a public hospital in Bangkok. I cannot describe my feelings after I found out that he had been released. It was a joy that I had never felt before. Later, the film won the Human Rights Press Award from Amnesty International of Thailand.
The second story is about the impact of gold mining in the Central Region of Thailand. I discovered that mining in the area had caused pollution in local water and soil. The villagers were sick from chemicals which had leaked from the gold mine. I have been reporting on the impact of mines from 2014 onwards. In 2016, the mine was closed by the government after the scientists confirmed its adverse effect on the local people. In 2016, this story got a press award from Amnesty International, Thailand.
Another story from outside the country is also worth mentionable. It was the story of the Rohingyas who escaped the fate of genocide in Myanmar and entered Bangladesh. Many foreign news agencies were interested in this issue but only a few Thai media had travelled to report the situation in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Five years ago when many Rohingyas migrated from the Andaman Sea to the southern provinces of Thailand and became victims of human trafficking in Thailand, their plights caught my eyes and I have been monitoring this issue ever since. Last year, my story received a Human Rights Press Award from Amnesty International of Thailand.
EM: Which would you say is your favourite, among the films or reports that you’ve made?
Wist: I like all the movies that I made – I cannot say which one is my favourite. Every movie has a special place in my mind as they have meaning for me behind the scenes. If I only have to choose one, I might say I like the story about the deep-south, Thailand because I want to see “peace” after I screen them. I felt the urge to make them because I needed my films to help resolve the violence in that war zone. I think the three provinces of the southern border (Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat) have seen enough violence. The film should be completed very soon.
EM: What is the background of the story?
Wist: Every time I went to the southern border provinces I felt uncomfortable and insecure. In addition, I saw tanks used in the local area and I saw battle at every corner. I saw military checkpoints all-along the ways that I passed. I saw machine guns even in primary schools. I saw the distrust of the local people of the military and the government officials. I’m an outsider, but I am hopeful that they will end the violence with a peace talk.
EM: What were the opportunities you gained from producing the film?
Wist: Every time I filmed for this story I felt that I grew up. I learned a lot from travelling and talking to people. And it is very good if each documentary that I present can create opportunities for others. This is enough for a journalist.
EM: What first attracted you to work as a reporter?
Wist: When I was a student at university I saw a reporter in a news TV station doing very good investigative reporting. At that time, I told myself that one day I will be like them. When I had the chance to become a TV journalist, I did not hesitate.
EM: What are the challenges for you working in Thailand especially with current Social-Politico situations? What’s the major threat now?
Wist: Reporting in Thailand after the military took over the country was quite difficult especially if you were covering political issues. Three-year ago, I presented a documentary titled “one year after the coup” which focused on freedom of expression of people after the coup. While I was working on this topic, I got a lot of pressures from different wings of the military but I did not fear to carry on with my tasks. I completed three episodes of the series.
After they were aired, they became the talk of the town because at that time only a few journalists dared to cover this kind of story. I realized that we won’t have freedom if we were scared to speak out. That situation has passed and from that moment on I am never scared to speak out even though at present the Junta’s era still persists. I’m still covering political issues and also highlighting some forbidden issues.
EM: How can online distribution help your work, and what are your thoughts on online and offline distribution?
EM: I knew the influence of social media after the 2014 coup in Thailand. After the military Junta took power from the elected government on May 22, 2014, all TV channels were ordered to stop broadcasting. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took control of broadcast media. At that time, I used social media for reporting the forbidden situation to the public and they went viral for the Thai community.
I think reporting online is a free platform that I can use without paying. It is the best way to use whenever the mainstream media are under the control of the government.
EM: What are you working on now and what’s your next project?
Wist: I am still interested in highlighting human rights abuses. I continue to cover human trafficking issues including the situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Of course, I still care about the violence in the southern border provinces of Thailand. I am preparing to make a film about the missing persons and the tortures in the southern border that is a huge problem in the area.
EM: Do you believe that films can change society?
Wist: Definitely, I believe films can change the society that is why I am still working as a journalist and a film maker. I think if the journalists are able to work hard enough our society can change for the better.