The Next Chapter of Thai PBS

  • On October 9, 2015, Somchai Suwanban, director general of Thai PBS was fired by the board without compensation as he allegedly ignored the recommendations of the board to improve the station. He was also found by the board to have breached the employment contract by approving four projects with value worth over Bt50 million each without the board approval.
  • On January 14, 2015, former manager of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, Krissada Ruang-areerat was picked by the Thai PBS’ board of governors as the new director of the public broadcaster.  Krissada announced that the Thai PBS should be a mechanism to drive the society.

At the turn of the new chapter of Thai PBS with newly appointed director at the helm, its future remains in doubt by many people. Media Inside Out organized a series of discussions on this issue with concerned parties. The first part was joined by former director Somchai Suwanban, and two veteran journalists Chakkrish Permpool, former president of National Press Council; Atukkit Sawangsuk, Voice TV’s senior editor, columnist and social critic; and leading media scholar Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak. The second part was joined by Assist. Prof. Uajit Virojtrairatt, media scholar and former Thai PBS Policy Board member, Hathairat Phaholtap, a Thai PBS reporter, Anon Meesri, Chairman of Thai PBS Audience Council; and Pennapa Hongthong of Media Inside Out.

THAI PBS AND SUCCESS STORIES?

 “What we see today is that the Thai PBS’ policy committee members are like bulls in a China shop,” reflects ousted director-general of Thai PBS Somchai Suwanban in a discussion entitled “Towards the future of Thai PBS… Reviewing the Mission of Thailand’s Public TV Channel”, held on January 19, 2016. 

“We had tried to build up brand value to push Thai PBS as “public media”.  And, it is the public who are to judge as to what extent we have been successful,” says Somchai, who  served as the Thai PBS’ policy committee for two terms and director general of Thai PBS for the past three years.  

Among the Thai PBS’ success stories, he stresses, is a key player in Thailand television digital transformation, as a parallel organization in tandem with the NBTC (Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission) in providing digital television infrastructure.  The Thai PBS also took part in distributing radio wave frequency, which was predominantly owned by the state and the military, into the hands of the people, he adds.   

For the Thai PBS to sustain, in Somchai’s view, the policy committee members must have long term vision, put the public’s interest first and dare to make right decisions by upholding to media ethics, in order to show true professionalism. “A publicly funded media organization needs to put more negotiation power into the hands of the people.”


The ousted director Somchai Suwanban

STILL UNDER THE MILITARY GRIP

“But, has the TPBS been able to remain its independence since the military coup?” asked media scholar Ubonrat Siriyuvasak.

“It has been quite difficult,” Somchai admits.  “During the PDRC (People's Democratic Reform Committee) protest [in 2013], one way to distance TPBS from the group was to call it “the group who called themselves PDRC” as we were well aware that many parties tried to direct media to act accordingly.”

By trying to be neutral, Somchai was questioned by the policy committee members on challenging the military government as they were afraid of the Article 44 (of the Military Interim Charter that is deemed by critics as giving the junta near absolute power) and fear that all the staff would end up being unemployed.  However, he views that “the fear of the junta’s power does not loom large exclusively among the Thai PBS’ people but among all people in the Thai society.”

Seeking to be balanced, the “Tieng Hai Roo Ruang” [Argue in order to Understand] program has been introduced, he adds, in order to invite opposite parties to debate in the same program, instead of inviting one party at a time.  “TPBS had acted in line with media ethics with balance and fairness in reporting but I admit that all could not be implemented.” 

FOR WHOM THE PUBLIC MEDIA RUN

Veteran journalist Atukkit Sawangsuk comments that the crux of the problem does not lay in the newly appointed director Krissada but within the Thai PBS itself.  Financed by taxes on tobacco and alcohol amounting to Bt2 billion annually, the Thai PBS has many contradictories, he observes. 

“Firstly, the so-called independent organization has still worked under the state system, in which media professionalism has not been fully practiced. Secondly, the Thai PBS has NGOs’ working style, engaging in nepotism while using the state fund.  And thirdly, it has not really understood the way professional media work. Say, for example, a story about the conflict between local people and mine operators. In an NGO’s point of view, the story should run for two hours whereas in professional media’s view, five minutes with an interesting way of news coverage is more than enough.  And if it cannot solve this problem, it is possible that in the year 2017, the 10th anniversary of the Thai PBS, it will be dismantled.”        

“Thai PBS has never been successful as real public media”, the senior editor of Voice TV asserts. “It has never been really like BBC or NHK. It has apparently chosen a political stance. As a matter of fact, it has promoted hatred rather than being neutral as it supposed to be.”   

As for the newly appointed director, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation has also been criticized heavily by the public, Atukkit adds. “The point is when the Thai Health Promotion Foundation has been accused of favoritism and Krissada quit. Now he is picked as the new Thai PBS’ director. On top of that, he has never had experienced in media.  What do you think is the view of the public?”  

Chakkrish Permpool, as the then National Press Council’s President, who also served three terms as a member of the Thai PBS’ selection committee, comments that the structure of the Thai PBS has been well-designed but the policy in selection process has something problematic. “The policy allows people to nominate themselves and almost all of the cases is people nominate themselves.”  In his view, it is unimportant for the director to be experienced in media but he needs to understand media, in particular public media. 

One sad fact is that “the Thai PBS has not existed in the DNA of Thai people. Grass-root people do not know what they need or do not need. It may take some time for the public to understand the necessity of the Thai PBS.” 

However, he is optimistic that the Thai PBS can survive but it needs to challenge the power-that-be amid the hopelessness of Thailand’s political scene.           


Thai PBS’s new director Krissada Ruang-areerat, centre, and the policy committee members.

QUESTIONING TRANSPARENCY

On January 27, a group of Thai PBS employees submitted a letter to the chairman and other members of the policy committee and selection panel, seeking further explanation on the selection process and appointment of the new director-general, who lacks professional journalistic experience.  This makes the appointment contrary to the Thai PBS law passed in 2008. 

Section 32 (3) of Thai PBS Act BE 2551 (2008), which deals with the director-general's qualifications, says the candidate "shall have knowledge, skill or experience in radio or television broadcasting or mass   communications".  The employees expressed concerns that the new director’s qualifications may not match those specified by the act.

The employees were told by the Board that, in a changing media landscape, they felt a professional media background was no longer necessary to head the station.

“We cannot deny that media landscape is changing.  I personally wish the new director can walk together with the staff to step forward,” says Hathairat Phaholtap, a Thai PBS reporter, who is among the staff unsatisfied with the Board’s answer. Among the staff questioning transparency of the selection process, Hathairat needs further clarification, calling for “open dialogue” among the staff and the board.   

“Does it mean that from now on, people who have no journalistic skills can be the director?” asks Hathairat at a forum entitled “Reviewing the Mission of Thailand’s Public TV Channel (Part 2)”, held on February 4, 2016. 

Media scholar Uajit Virojtrairatt, who is former Thai PBS Policy Board member, views that the new director Krissada has experience in using media channels to campaign for social change. However, she asks with “respect and concerns”: “Is the Policy Board's interpretation of the law a general interpretation or merely to justify its choice in appointing the new chief?”   The interpretation of the Board is a “weak” interpretation of the law, Uajit comments. 

If the board wishes to set a new direction for Thai PBS, it must explain itself to employees and the public, she added. 

PUBLIC MEDIA FOR SOCIAL CHANGE?

After the appointment, the new director announced his vision for Thai PBS, which is to use the public service channel as a tool for social change.  

“Is it an appropriate vision to use a public TV to create social change?” asks moderator Pennapa.

Anon Meesri, Chairman of Thai PBS Audience Council agrees.  “Media is a channel to move society ahead. And in taking part in the Audience Council, we hope to change the society using media. And the media need to be easily accessed by the public. It needs to be two-way communications.”

The 50 members of the Audience Council are people from all walks of life who share their issues and problems, which will lead to agendas for social change, Anon adds.

But Hathairat disagrees: "the duty of reporters is to report facts. It is not our jobs to act as actors, judging anything as white or black.  Dr. Krissada has a good intention in using Thai PBS to offer the best for the public.  Although he announced that he does not expect good rating, we do our jobs because we need recognition from the audience."

Pubic media are responsible for social change, Uajit says.  “When I was a policy committee, I gave an interview saying that I wish Thai PBS to be a living library, for all groups of people to be able to keep abreast of this changing world.”

 “Although it is funded by the state “evil taxes”, it should not serve the government’s agenda.  The state, here is not the government.  It must not be afraid of anyone’s power.  The new director must not use Thai PBS to support anyone’s specific agenda,” Uajit stresses.