A discussion on “Politics in Thai PBS’ Policies…Is It Time for Change?” was organized by Media Inside Out on June 29, 2016. Three speakers joining the talk were Asst. Prof. Dr. Nithita Siripongtugsin of Ramkamhaeng University, Asst. Prof. Dr. Jantajira Iammayura of Thammasat University and former Thai PBS’ executive board member, and Chamnan Chanruang, a two-time candidate for Thai PBS’ policy board members. The talk was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak.
The Thai Public Broadcast Service (Thai PBS) is the first and only Thailand’s state-funded public broadcasting service with 2 billion baht a year from earmarked tax. After the 2006 coup, it was seized by the coup makers, says moderator Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat. Recently, doubts cast over Thai PBS’ censorship on “Tieng Hai Roo Ruang” [Argue in order to Understand]. “Thai PBS’ not offering spaces freely for diverse opinions is among current controversial issues in the society.”
To understand the politics behind the Thai PBS, we need to understand how it was formed. “Thai PBS was conceived from competition of three vested interest groups: 1) former iTV group; 2) the group that seized the concession of iTV, which was the state organizations--the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister Office and the Government Relations Department; and 3) a leading civil society group, led by Prof. Dr. Prawase Wasi,” says Asst. Prof. Dr. Nithita Siripongtugsin, who did her PhD research on “Politics in public media policies of the Thai Public Broadcasting Service” in 2012.
Prof. Dr. Prawase Wasi’s group presented the “Triangle that Moves the Mountain”, an approach unprecedented in Thailand that co-incidentally answered the need of the government, Nithita pointed out. “The triangle represents the power of the state, the power of the society, which includes the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, and the power of wisdom, which was backed up by researches,” she explained.
Professor Dr. Prawase Wasi, right, a key figure behind the Thai public media policies.
Stated Funded but Not for All?
“Although Thai PBS receives not more than two billion baht a year from the earmarked excise tax, it may guarantee security but may not guarantee neutrality,” Nithita comments. Her research explored Thai PBS’ policies and performance during the first two years after its establishment. “Most of the programs focused on communities, local identities and cultures. Community representatives were invited in the programs. However, it was not clear that all groups of people in the society were able to participate,” she observes.
A former Thai PBS’ executive board member Asst. Prof. Dr. Jantajira Iammayura comments similarly. Jantajira, who admits that she was accidentally selected to be an executive board member during the junta-appointed interim government, recalls her time during working for the Thai PBS: “In retrospect, we can see the approach of Prof. Emeritus Dr. Prawase Wasi, which has put an importance on the goals, rather than the methods. They would do any method to reach the goals. We can see that people in his networks have been systematically placed, including in the Surayud Chulanont’s government [after the 2006 coup], and in the National Legislative Assembly. The direction of Thai PBS’ policies have been in line with his networks’ philosophies, stressing on natural resources, self-sufficient living, and promoting doing good deeds/being good people.”
“The question is: Could other groups in the society with different views have their say? Has Thai PBS, which is state-funded, let other groups who have other kinds of problems have their voices heard?”
One point worth mentioning, Jantajira adds, is the power designating the program schedules. “The program schedules had to be approved by TPBS Board of Governors. Let’s have a look at where the 9 members of the Board of Governors come from. Four of them came from civil society organizations, working for children, natural resources, and local communities; two from media professionals and three with expertise on policies. With the Board of Governors’ majority from NGOs, it is not surprising to see that the shape of the program schedules is aligned with expertise of the majority.”
Guest speakers, from left, Jantajira Iammayura, Chamnan Chanruang, Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, and Nithita Siripongtugsin
Not-So-Free Work Environment
Moreover, the former executive board member says the working environment was not really open for free thinking. “While working, I felt somewhat uneasy, and so did other people including editors. It seemed there were something above us, always controlling us. When approving the program schedules, we had to pay attention to the views of the policy board members, albeit without any written orders.”
Questioning Media Neutrality
Jantajira cites an example illustrating that equal quantity of airtime does not really reflect neutrality of content. “In 2009 during the political unrest, and protests of both the Yellow and Red Shirt Parties, we knew in what tone the documentaries would come out. I always questioned why there was no space for the anti-government group. Although it was found that the airtimes on programs depicting both supporting government party and the anti-government party were almost equal, the quantity does not necessarily reflect the content.”
Meanwhile, Chamnan Chanruang shares his experience on being a two-time candidate for Thai PBS’ Board of Governors. A law scholar, and former Amnesty International Thailand chairman with a proven record of success, Chamnan says, “I was very confident that I would be chosen in the first round and am very confident that I would not be chosen in the second round.”
Krissada Ruang-areerat, former manager of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, was picked by the Thai PBS’ board of governors as the new director.
In the first round, he was quite confident as he was qualified in many aspects, including promoting democracy, local and community development and education development. “I am a leader of self-governing Chiang Mai Movement, a lecture in political science, and also a member of the Midnight University. On being a good person, I am a good citizen, having been ordained, and won a “Best Person of Society” award by the Interior Ministry. I was pretty confident that I have qualifications and visions to save Thai PBS from being a replica of Channel 11[the state-own TV channel]. I was short-listed among 8 other people. But, finally Ajarn Narong [Petprasert] was selected. Personally, we respect each other.” In the second round, Chamnan was confident that he would not be chosen [which came out to be as he expected.]
“So, how can we the public rest assured that Thai PBS would use the public tax cost effectively?” asks Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ubonrat.
Asst. Prof. Dr. Nithita’s view is that having fixed budget can have negative impacts, including no need to find advertisement, nor care for audience ratings, lack of competiveness, and lack of alertness at work. “The Board of Governors need to have sharp visions in setting up policies that will lead to different content,” she recommends.
A way out for Thai PBS’ more balanced media broadcasting, in Chamnan’s opinion, is the Board of Governors need to practice professionalism of media ethics. “It is common for everyone to have his or her own political stance but when it comes to work, we have to strive to maintain journalism ethics.”
Jantajira’s recommendation is that the Board of Governors be dissolved. “It is the members of the Board of Governors who link outside concepts into the organization, which leads to a certain agenda.”