21 November 2011

Media in Movements

Most recently we spent time in the Rasi Salai community located on the Mun River, in Srisaket province. This community has experienced substantial and ongoing effects from a nine-meter concrete dam built by the Thai Department of Energy Development and Promotion in 1992. Local groups protested this dam and pressured the government to conduct sufficient environmental and social impact assessments. Since, the Rasi Salai dam has been recommissioned for seven years under the Royal Irrigation Department.

We spent time speaking with both villagers and NGOs about ongoing projects from the recommendations in the Social Impact Assessment. As the community has settled some of the compensation issues, they are looking for more long-term support in restorative community projects. At the time of the protest, there was media coverage regarding the demands of the people regarding the resource and livelihood deterioration the dam was causing. Even then, one news source ran a story requesting the interviewees refer to the dam as a “big government development project.”

Now, many years later P’Banya, an NGO working with the Rasi Salai community is still using media as a way to document the wider communities’ restorative efforts. “Media is an import part of grassroots movements,” P’Banya tells us, “it’s a way of telling stories about our own struggles, to communicate these with others.” In exploring mechanisms for telling human rights and grassroots messages, our student group has gotten the opportunity to see media as an important tool.

Since 2009, there are more local reporters who are interested in stories on people’s movements including events in the Rasi Salai community. Both video and images can also tell a story through the media, as it is important to present a more objective perspective that allows the audience to understand factors at play and the people’s perspectives. Thai PBS is a channel on mainstream television that has aired stories from the people’s movement. NGOs hope their work with Thai PBS will eventually lead to the inclusion of more community stories in mainstream news. The NGOs themselves work on stories for The Isaan Voice, a regional newspaper, Facebook and blogs. A community radio station is in the works, but funding is hard to come by so long after the dam construction captured the attention of a wider audience, both in Thailand and abroad.

For now, Thai PBS is funding a project to document the Wetlands People Association and their organizing around cultural celebration at the Rasi Salai learning center, although the area is currently flooded due to high water levels in the dam reservoir. Meh Sii and other community members are excited about the media as a way to gather support for ongoing community development projects, including the prospect for a green market in the future.

Morgan Tarrant
Davidson College


Eileen K. said...

I think it is interesting that over the last couple of units, both in the dam-affected and mine-affected communities, the use of media has been an important aspect in raising awareness of community issues. I think it is also interesting that when media is being used, the Thai government is more likely to care about the concerns of the villagers. This may be because when news about human oppression is broadcasted, the government become concerned about what their image may look like if it seems that they are not properly taking care of their people. However, I think the impact of media has to do with the ability to connect communities. The media spreads information that network one community with other communities that may be facing a similar problem, or with people that can be allies to their cause. Through media, people are able to spread feelings, raise awareness and tell their stories, but media also allows us to learn about other people and become empathic to their cause.

Daniel Pastan said...

Interesting post, Morgan!

I very well remember that conversation with P’Banya, and was actually surprised at the extent to which he saw media as a critical force in Rasi Salai’s ongoing fight. In numerous other communities that we’ve visited, villagers (who are perhaps of an older generation than P’Banya) have no understanding of newer forms of media, most particularly film. When we have discussed potential projects that could be executed in these communities, it seems like villagers prefer written material, such as a pamphlet or handout, to high-tech material, such as a documentary or photo essay. I wonder sometimes how things would pan out if rural communities actually made use of these ‘newer’ forms. On the one hand, a site like YouTube might attract more attention, but on the other hand, outsiders might assume a skewed perception of a given community if they appear to have access to high-tech resources. Taking this into consideration, I think that NGOs and outsiders working in communities need to spend sufficient time considering exactly how they are portraying communities within new media outlets.

Erica M said...

I was intrigued by your post Morgan because I find it very interesting that our main forms of "action" here in Thailand are ways of spreading information. This has been described by some as a way to level the playing field between village interests and government propaganda. It also has the potential to connect people, as Eileen mentioned. I can't help but wonder how much media actually does, or whether it is another much romanticized change agent with little actual power. Firstly because since being here in Thailand I have been bombarded with information on all sides of the issues (although mostly just one side). In spite of my increased awareness and ability to make informed decisions, I have grown increasingly uncertain of the correct course of action. I would not say I am paralyzed by information, but simply more accurately recognize the complexity of these situations. I hesitate to come down on one side without a broader solution. With that in mind, I wonder if media has the same affect on normal people. I suppose it depends on the tone of the media source and whether it's goal is to "complicate the picture" or to motivate towards action.

Nara Baker said...

Hey CIEE Thailand!

Morgan, thank you so much for the great post! I really enjoyed getting a brief glimpse into what you guys have been up to this semester. I was especially excited to read about the use of media as a way of “telling stories about their own struggles, to communicate with these others.” Here in the Dominican Republic this semester, I had the opportunity to do an investigation around the city of Santiago profiling children and adolescents who work in the streets as shoe shiners, car window washers, fruit sellers, etc for an educational foundation for kids at “high risk.” Through my observation and work researching/talking with the young people, I learned that it is not uncommon here for there to be problems with police abuse, immigration, numerous issues that these minors face while working (the way it works around here is you are guilty until proven innocent). I also quickly observed that this vibrant population had A LOT to share about their challenges, interests, etc. and that local perceptions of these kids were often incorrect.
So, I decided to make a short documentary of these kids and their work – to give them a platform to have their voices heard – and hopefully promote their work in a positive light. The kids in the video were all super excited by the idea of being about to share and the project was a lot of fun! I first learned about communities such as those you describe in your post in terms of the Zapatista movement in Mexico and their use of technology and the internet to promote their cause and globally spread their message. I believe that these media movements have great potential.

Unfortunately, the video is only in Spanish (English subtitles hopefully coming soon), but here’s the link in case you guys are interested!


Courtney Newsome CIEE-SL Dominican Republic said...

Hi Morgan! Great post. I really appreciated you mentioning media’s influence in grassroots projects like the ones taking place right now in the Rasi Salai community. Ever since I took an anthropology class on film freshman year , I have been so fascinated by the transformational power that media coverage can have by not only making issues public but by creating serious social waves from the messages they send. In the past and present, media has really proven itself as an outstanding means of enlightening viewers and motivating change, often connecting people across countries and cultures in the process. One aspects of using media that I’ve always found very interesting but that often goes understated is the influence the creator has on the issue covered in the media they create. As I learned in my class, there’s a lot that goes into covering an issue—be it through film, video, newspaper, radio—that by the time it reaches the viewers’ hands, it’s not just about the story that’s being told; it’s about who it is being told by, when they’re telling it, what they are—and are not—saying that truly shapes the issue in the way the will make the viewer react a certain way. And so I was just wondering if during your trip to Rasi Salai, after viewing media coverage on the dam issue, if you considered the creator. Who she or he was and how their point of view might be reflected in the media. If the creator is an insider (say someone who is from the community or knows it really well), how does that influence how the messages are being conveyed? If the creator is an outsider, is it obvious and do they seem to be targeting a particular audience with what they are trying to say? It’s interesting to pay attention to these things because the thing is that with media, one has the ability to manipulate. And manipulation, if you have not already considered, can be both a good and bad thing. Sometimes, it comes off as unintentional but rarely is the creator without intention. I’m sure in the case of the media coverage from the Rasi Salai community, the influence of media has created positive contributions rather than negative ones. But that is not always the case.