Skip to main content

This article, Media Reform and Legitimization Politics in Thailand (2009), is the revised version of The Future Challenge of Communication and Media Reform in Thailand, presented at SPICES 2008 – The 3rd International Conference on Inter-Asia Culture, Communication and Peace, Universiti Sains Malaysia (University of Science, USM) Penang, 7-9 August 2008


Media reform in Thailand has been part of the political reform project in the 1990s. The rights and freedom of the media were enshrined in Articles 39, 40 and 41 of the 1997 Constitution. These guarantees were written as a whole package of a move to liberalize the economy while maintaining a more stable political environment. Article 39 and 41 were the starting point for the Press Council of Thailand to push forward with its liberalization agenda. On the other hand, Article 40 which sought to reallocate radio frequencies for broadcasting and telecommunications was seen an open door for new players to enter the industries. However, there have been serious contestations from media corporations and various powerful institutions to retain the status quo while civil society groups seized this precious opportunity for change. This paper will discuss the conflict in the media reform process during 1997 – 2008. My argument is that the objectives of the 1997 Constitution on media reform have been geared towards economic liberalization and political legitimization rather than democratization. And since this is closely tied up with on-going political transformation media reform has been thwarted from its original script.

Keywords:          Media reform, political reform, liberalization, democratization


                Media reform as a discourse in Thai contemporary historical and socio-political contexts could be seen as a response to the popular student up-rising in the 1970s. But successive elected and coup appointed governments in the 1970s-1980s are unable to launch any serious reform, especially on state broadcast media. The rights and freedom of political expression remain tightly controlled. It is the government of Anand Panyarachun after May 1992 that initiated the reform project. This is a direct response to the outcry against information distortion and news blackout by Suchinda Kraprayoon’s government during the mass protest in April-May 1992. The resurgence of media reform in the late 1990s has been significant in light of the changing political power relations of the elite, bureaucrats, business groups and politicians, intellectuals and the middle classes and the press amidst rapid economic growth/crisis and globalization.

                                               General Suchinda Kraprayoon (left), Anand Panyarachun (right)

This chapter looks into the rationalization of media reform that intertwined with the broad political reform project as a consequence of the political event in 1992. My argument is that the objectives of the 1997 Constitution have been geared towards economic liberalization, political stability and transparency, and parliamentary efficiency rather than its rhetoric on democratization (CDD - Committee on Democracy Development 1995). The main focus of this chapter is to investigate the much contested media reform project and the deep interconnectedness between the media and the politics of reform. Finally, the chapter will discuss how media reform is a discourse for political legitimacy for reformists.

Constitutionalizing media reform

This section gives a brief background on media reform that is packaged within the political reform project. The underlying agenda of the reformist in liberalizing the media industry is to harness the media to legitimize the campaign on political reform. I shall outline how the liberal and conservative discourses work together on this platform.

Political reform in the 1990s

With the military pushed back after May 1992, albeit temporarily, political reform and the drafting of a new constitution in 1997 proposed by the elite and well-known public intellectuals, with support from business groups, non-governmental organizations and civic groups, urban public, and not least, the media, is achieved. The reform project was the brain child of three important figures who command broad linkage to Thailand social and political networks. These are; Dr.Prawase Wasi, the highly respected royal physician, Anand Panyarachun, former prime-minister during 1991-1992, and Prof.Chai-anan Samudavanija, well-known political scientist from Chulalongkorn University and resident advisor of Puchadkarn and Manager Media Group (Kasian Tejapira 2006). Dr.Prawase and Anand also take the leading role in implementing the media reform proposal framed within the political reform package. Politicians were deliberately excluded from this movement except for a few selected representatives.

The project on political reform in the 1990s, which produced a new Constitution in 1997, has been viewed with mixed feelings on hindsight. Connors (2002), who is optimistic about the new Constitution, gives merit on its ‘liberal’ framework. The three main thrusts; rights and freedom of citizens, institutionalization of checks and balances of power, and electoral reform to restructure parliamentary representations, are seen as keys to unlock authoritarianism and patronage politics plaguing Thailand for decades. On the contrary, Yoshifumi (2008) argues that the middle class and the ruling elite have over claimed their leading role in the 1992 political struggle. They, together with the mainstream press, have created a conservative discourse to discredit politicians and popular political movement. This has effectively legitimized the power of the elite, the capitalist class and, especially, the middle classes, hence, justifying themselves as the leading actors of democratization in Thai politics. Yoshifumi asserts that the so called ‘People’s Constitution’ turns out to be a constitution for the conservative forces in Thai society and not for the people. Despite his optimistic view on the reform movement, Connors also notes that, behind the rhetoric of a ‘People’s Constitution’ and a liberal outlook lay a carefully engineered reform program which would be legitimized through public hearing and involvement (Connors 2002). The reform process could be accurately described as ‘elite democracy’ or ‘reform from above’ as Somchai Phatharathananunth (2002) neatly criticized. But with McCargo (2005) he goes further to argue that it could be seen as a ‘palace constitution’ to help ensure the survival and future stability of the Chakri dynasty.

Proponent of media reform and the 1997 Constitution

Media reform started in earnest, as a liberal discourse, after the 1992 bloody May. The long term goal of the media reform committee was to liberalize the media from state control in terms of content and ownership. During his 3-months in office, Interim Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun struck two significant short term move for the capitalist media. He lifted the 12-mins advertising time limit on radio and launched a new commercial television station, iTV, as a legitimate response to the middle-class’s call for more quality news and information. [i] In 1997 Anand played a key role as Chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC). He closely supervised the drafting of the articles on the rights and freedom of the media in section 3 of the draft constitution. His view was to liberalize the media and telecommunications industries by restructuring the systems and open for new entrants and competition while an independent regulator would be set up to replace the role of existing state agencies (Ukrist Pathmanand 2005).

The second strand of media reform came from Dr. Prawase Wasi, Chair of the Committee on Democracy Development (CDD) and Deputy Chair of the Political Reform Committee (PRC). [ii] As the key proponent of the political reform project he saw media reform as a significant part of political reform (Prawase Wasi 1995). In his article “The media and the creation of democracy” (1992) he explicated the value of democracy that it would improve the quality of life of human being on material, social, psychological and intellectual needs. He defined democracy in terms of checks and balances of political power whereby democracy means a free media that could monitor politicians. His emphasis was on how democracy could limit the power of the state and increase the power of the people to regulate the state. Prawase’s last point was that the people must be wise in selecting their leader in a democracy. Therefore, the media were seen as educator to enlighten individual and Thai society among several key learning institutions such as the family, the community, and school. Prawase also suggested that a mass media development institution should be set up to carry out this important strategy of managing and developing the quality of media practitioners and media content (Prawase Wasi 1994). His proposal on media reform rarely touched upon the issue of communication rights and freedom of speech of citizens. For him the mass media were seen as an instrument to legitimize noble political goals endowed from above.

Section 3 of the 1997 Constitution enshrined four articles regarding the rights and freedom of information and expressions according to past constitution corpus. On the fundamental right to information the Constitution was unprecedented in guaranteeing citizens’ access to public information in Article 58. Whereas this article is expected to work as a checking mechanism on politicians and the government Article 39 guaranteed the basic rights and freedom of the mass media. There is no pre-censorship of the press nor closure by the state. And for the first time the right and freedom of journalists to work independently was guaranteed in Article 41. Regarding broadcasting, a tightly state-guarded terrain, media reformists have two clear aims. The first objective was to reorganize the role of the state. The prescription was to separate the two functions, operation and regulation in state broadcasting agencies, and create a new independent regulatory body. The second objective, after the new regulator was put in place, was to break up state monopoly and reallocate the spectrum for new players to ‘compete freely and fairly’ (Clause 3, Article 40). The move foresaw that state monopoly on broadcast ownership would decrease proportionately (Surat Metheekul 2002).

A close reading of the 1997 Constitution, however, shows that Clause 2 of Article 335 prescribed for full legal binding of licenses, concessions and contracts on broadcasting and telecommunications between state agencies and private operators until the end of the their term. This grandfathering of key concessions largely meant that the status quo of the broadcasting and telecommunications system would be preserved. The two most popular terrestrial commercial television stations, Channel 3 (MCOT) and Channel 7 (Royal Thai Army), for example, would be able to hold on to their concessions until 2020 and 2022 respectively. This particular clause shows how political reformists must compromise with the conservative forces on their economic interests regarding the broadcast media and telecommunications. It simply attests to the fact that although it is believed that the power of the bureaucratic state and the military are declining after 1992 their political patronage remains definitive.

In the following sections I will describe how reformists legitimize its political agenda through the mainstream printed press and how they are confronted with contestations from the military and industrial monopoly in the broadcast media. I will then discuss another counter-reform movement. This is the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and his telecom-media empire. Thaksin’s aggressive media control and privatization policies have deep repercussions on media rights and freedom. They produce what is known as the anti-Thaksin movement which the anti-Thaksin/pro-reform media are at the forefront. Finally, the military coup, and its supporters, which brought down Thaksin, presented itself as the antidote of media reform. In the concluding part I will discuss how it turns out that media professionalism and independence are at stake and the rights and freedom of expressions of citizens have declined during the decade long media reform process.

Advocate of media reform

Political reformists have enlisted media professional organizations such as the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) and the newly founded Thai Broadcast Journalist Association (TBJA) as their advocates. In addition, the role of the National Press Council of Thailand (NPC) has been crucial in reforming the printed press (Kavi Chongkittavorn 2007). Other advocates were non-governmental organizations such as the Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) and the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), and a range of non-governmental organizations on social issues who formed a network called the People’s Assembly. These are the public speaker and advocate who are central to the legitimization of the reform discourse.

The National Press Council of Thailand

Political reform, and the drafting of the new constitution, was seen by some as a measure to rescue the economy by restructuring the power relations in the Thai political system after the 1997 financial crash (Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker 2000). The press, similar to other business sectors, was seeking opportunity to recover from its decline after it faced economic downturn as the currency devaluation crisis hit the country. During the 1980s to mid-1990s the entertainment industry and the press grew steadily as GDP surged to double digit. Five press groups became public company and registered in the stock exchange. These are; Manager Media Group (MMG), Post Publishing, Wattachak Group, Nation Group and Matichon Group. But three out of the five press group were badly affected by the crisis in 1997. At this critical juncture many mainstream newspapers laid off large number of employees. A brief survey shows that those who expanded themselves unsparingly, such as Manager Media Group, Nation Group, Wattachak Group and Kukang, were confronted with serious lost. MMG, Wattachak Group and Kukang went bankrupt. Nation Group managed to join iTV, the new terrestrial television station, as its news producer, and diversified into news content provider for the broadcast media, and in addition, it launched a new mass circulation paper, Kom Chad Luek, as a means of survival. The popular papers, such as Thai Rath and Daily News, and the English press, the Bangkok Post, were not too badly affected (Thai Journalist Association Data Center 1997). They recovered and regained their level of profit in early 2000s (Nualnoi Treerat and Thani Chaiwat 2004).

Aside from the crunch of economic crisis the printed press has been on continuous decline due to new communications technologies, such as the Internet and mobile phone, which provide speedy information and communication. Press circulation ceases to increase for over a decade. The market is now concentrated on the electronic media and multi-media. Television, for example, take the largest share of advertising revenue, between 50-55% over other media, and set to expand further when cable and satellite television become more and more popular (Somkiat Tangkivanit 2004). These are critical economic problems and the press needed a real solution. Media reform, by way of liberating state political and economic control on the press and the broadcast media, presented itself as a good way out of the quandary for media enterprises owned by local capitalists producing goods and services for local markets.

Big corporations such as MMG (owned by Sondhi Limthongkul and his family), Shin Corp (owned by Thaksin Shinawatra and his family), and GMM Grammy (owned by Paiboon Damrongchaitham) are the few exceptions. Their aim is to reach out to the regional and global media and telecommunications markets. They form their own business and political network after the 1997 economic crash and rise to power apart from MMG whose faith has been murky. These groups see media as high profit business and a tool for political power. They capture media reform as a center piece for their business expansion. They, thereby, come into direct confrontation with reformist as we shall see in more detail.

During the constitution drafting process senior members of the press and the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) were involved in two significant ways. Firstly, they wanted to ensure that the constitution would fully guarantee press freedom and to have these rights and freedom extended further in political and economic terms. Secondly, they co-operated closely with the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) to campaign for public consensus and a swift passage of the constitution. Manit Suksomchit, senior journalist from Thai Rath and member of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), reflecting on the rights and freedom gained from the 1997 Constitution that Article 39 of the draft fulfilled the first objective of a free press. The Article also included freedom to broadcast without closure or pre-censorship. However, Article 41 which guaranteed the right and freedom of journalists and media practitioners to work independently stipulated that this would not be effective without a law regulating professional ethics and conduct. To acquire this constitutional right and to resolve the legal binding from state regulation the press proposed to establish its own press council, an effacement effort, for self regulation on professional and ethical conduct (Manit Suksomchit 2005). Hence, just prior to the proclamation of the constitution in October the National Press Council of Thailand (NPC) was founded. This political move, towards full liberalization of the press, received open blessing from Dr.Prawase Wasi. [iii]

UBONRAT SIRIYUVASAK was Associate Professor in media studies at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University. She was UNESCO Chair in Freedom of Expression, a joint project between UNESCO and Chulalongkorn University, during 2003-2004. Aside from teaching she has been engaged with the media reform movement in her capacity as Chairperson of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR) during 2001-2011. Ubonrat is also a co-founder of Media Inside Out Group.

Her research and social interests are communication rights, media reform and popular culture. Her research articles have been published in numerous journals and books including “Digital Democracy: A new era of digital connectivity” (Trendnovation Southeast, 4th issue – Digital Politics, Sept, 2010), “People’s media and communication rights in Indonesia and the Philippines” (Inter- Asia Cultural Studies, 6:2, June, 2005). Contact:  [email protected]

[i] iTV was operated by a consortium of ten shareholders under the concession of the Office Attached to the Office of the Prime Minister (Mollana Nakmanee 2003). Most of the major popular daily newspapers join the bid for iTV concession. The station began broadcasting in 1996. 

[ii] There are two pro-reform camps. The first group proposed ‘Constitutionalism’ to restore power to the bureaucracy. Amorn Chandrasomboon, former Secretary-General of the Office of the Council of State, published a series of essays in Puchadkarn Daily in 1993-1994 (Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker 2000). The second group is made up of members of non-governmental organizations and public intellectuals who want to see social equity and direct citizens’ participation in politics. This group is in favor of party politics, not bureaucratic politics (Yoshifumi 2008).

[iii] On July 4th 1997 twenty-five major newspapers (from thirty-two registered member of the Confederation of Journalists of Thailand) came together to form the National Press Council (NPC). The charter was drafted within one month and the first election was held on October 9th 1997, two days before the proclamation of the 1997 Constitution. The NPC committee member is composed of four categories; 1. owner/executive, 2. editor, 3. journalist/practitioner, and 4. external expert (Manit Suksomchit 2005). The composition of the National Press Council which combined media owners, executives and professional journalists is half way between an industrial association and a professional council.

Media Reform and Legitimization Politics in Thailand (1)