Media Reform and Legitimization Politics in Thailand (2)

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

ABSTRACT

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

Advocate of media reform

Thai Journalist Association and Thai Broadcast Journalist Association

Both Dr.Prawase Wasi and Anand Panyarachun continue to play significant role in materializing the concept of media reform penned in the 1997 Constitution. Prawase assisted the National Press Council of Thailand and the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) in setting up the Isra News Center, later renamed Isra Institute (II), which is attached to the Thai Press Development Foundation. Isra News Center is strategically located in Pattani to report on the security, ethno-religious, and political economic conflict in the southern provinces. This has created a network of committed journalists from a range of mainstream newspapers to cope with the poor reporting of the conflict in the southern provinces since 2004 (see a detailed analysis in McCargo 2006). Some of the financial support was drawn from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. Other capacity building program such as investigative report training and research study of the Foundation received support from Internews Network, Unicef, Unesco, and World Association of Newspapers, for instance (Isra Institute 2008). The underlying meaning of Isra News Center could be seen as a counter measure to the government security policy in the South.

Thai Broadcast Journalist Association (TBJA) was newly founded in 2001 to support the reform process. Its board member was drawn from broadcast journalists who were sympathetic to the cause of reform such as Jira Hongsamrerng (formerly iTV news editor), Thepchai Yong (Nation Multi-Media and iTV news director, presently managing director of TPBS), representatives from Channel 3, Channel 9, iTV, UBC7, INN news agency, Business Radio, Watch Dog and Bangkok Media. TBJA became the official entity of the commercial news broadcast media as opposed to state media agencies such as the Public Relations Department (owning Channel 11 and 149 radio stations) and the military (owning Channel 5 and Channel 7 and 211 radio stations). During 2002-2005 TBJA together with TJA worked intensively to extend its network around the country through seminar and training workshops (TBJA Annual Report 2003, 2004 and 2005). They are tasked with safeguarding the selection process of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Although they fail to have their representative in the NBC selection committee their networks were influential in setting the news agenda on media reform.

The Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR)

                                                                       Supinya Klangnarong, former secretary-general of the defunct Campaign for Popular Media Reform (Photo credit Bangkokbiznews.com)

Another vigorous move for political and media reform came from the non-governmental organizations platform. The progressive wing of the NGO movement has given overwhelming support to the political reform project from the beginning liaised by the Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD). In 1998 the People’s Assembly, a broad network of non-governmental organizations on labor, agrarian, environmental, and social issues, took up media reform as one of its working agenda on their overall social and political reform project. As a result the Working Group on Monitoring Article 40 has been formed with 25 non-governmental organizations as its founding member. Its aim was to push the media reform process forward by monitoring the implementation of the 1997 Constitution, specifically on the organic law abiding Article 40 and the setting up of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the independent regulator, and to mobilize public opinion in favor of media reform (Supinya Klangnarong 2000). 

The key role of the Working Group on Monitoring Article 40, later re-named the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), has been placed around the critical debate on the content of the Radio Frequency Allocation Organization Act. Working side by side with media and law academics, and members of parliament from the opposition Kuaam Wang Mai or New Aspiration Party, they put in place 3 significant points in the new Radio Frequency Allocation Organization Act. Firstly, there would be two independent regulatory bodies, The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).  These two bodies are tasked with the duties to ‘reform’ the state broadcasting and telecommunications agencies. They have the legitimacy to allocate the spectrum and give new licenses to compete with the incumbent license holders and concessionaires. Secondly, there would be 3 classifications of broadcasting services; public service, private/commercial service, and community service.  Thirdly, at least 20% of the radio frequencies must be allocated to community radio and television (Article 26). The new classifications for private and community services and the 20% frequency reservation for community media have been proposed under the concept of media democratization. If it were applied state agencies would cease to monopolize the airwave while legal access by commercial and community media would be permitted. Furthermore, there is a proportionate guarantee for community media which is unprecedented. The new discourse is expected to give some voices to the voiceless in society (Ubonrat Siriyuvasak 2005).

As described above the complications of media reform and press politicization could be seen as part of the struggle to recover from the immediate economic crisis and its long term liberalization project. TBJA has been launched to seek similar political and economic opportunity for the commercial broadcasters who want to break free from state patronage. This mutual relationship further evolved into an implicit coalition that produced a favorable media environment in the implementation of the 1997 Constitution. Furthermore, the partnership of reformist, the National Press Council and TJA and TBJA, with non-governmental organizations, CPMR in particular, academia and public intellectuals, form a broad network that provided the credibility and the thrust for the reform discourse. As a result the implementation of the political reform project has been considerably strengthened.

Opponent of media reform

                The anti-reform group is made up of networks of state agencies and business groups who monopolize the ownership and operation of the broadcast media. The Army, which owned the largest number of stations, took the leading role in contesting the reform movement. During the legislation of the Radio Frequency Allocation Organization Act their representatives in the House Committee argued vehemently against the reallocation of the radio frequencies. They stated that this would unfairly rob them of their rice bowl (Thai Post, 5 May 1999). Since they failed to block the passage of the law they launched another offensive on the selection process of the National Broadcasting Commission as we shall see below.

Military-industrial alliance

                                   From left – Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, Field Marshal Prapas Charusathien

                The majority of the military radio and television stations have been set up during the Thanom-Prapas dictatorship during the 1960s-1970s (except for Army Television Channel 5 set up by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1958). The military holders of these broadcasting properties were the political soldiers of past generations. These are their precious sources of income and political power. This group of soldier and its corporate alliance in the media industry, led by JSL-a leading television production house, formed the Confederation of Radio and Television Broadcasting Professional Association. They also collaborated with conservative forces in the religious associations and philanthropy organizations. Together with the representatives from state agencies they have two-third of the NBC selection committee under control (Jermsak Pinthong 2005).   The pro-reform group, on the other hand, secured only two seats, Anand Panyarachun representing the Foundation for Children (which Dr.Prawase chaired) and Montien Boontun from the Association of the Blind. With such strong resistant the plan of the pro-reform group to have Anand Panyarachun chair the NBC selection committee did not materialize. The chair went to Somporn Thepsitta, Vice President of the Social Welfare Council of Thailand (Under His Majesty Patronage). Hence, the military-industrial alliance, the bureaucratic and conservative anti-reform coalition could easily control the working of the selection committee (Supinya Klangnarong 2000).

The tug-of-war between the anti-reform and pro-reform groups stalled the selection process from 2001 to 2006. In 2003, the Administrative Court nullified the process on ground of conflict of interest between members of the selection committee and the selected candidates.   Nonetheless, the selection committee finally short-listed 14 candidates in 2005. These comprised of people closely connected with the military-industrial alliance and the conservative groups. The coup in 2006 further stalled the set up of the NBC.

Thaksin Shinawatra political power and media monopoly

The political and business formation of Thaksin’s administration, 2001-2004 and 2005-2006, was made up of Thailand major business and industrial sectors; telecommunications, finance, media, and automobile. The main economic policy, dubbed ‘Thaksinomics’, was directed towards a neo-liberal economy connected with globalism. It also has a populist face, such as low-income health care, one-million baht village fund, small loan scheme, low-cost housing, that makes the government highly popular among the rural population and the urban poor (Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker 2004). Thaksin’s new social contract with certain groups of capitalist class and the lower classes effectively opened the way for his premiership.

                Thaksin Shinawatra and Shin Corp survived the economic crisis while two third of major business and industry in Thailand collapse. He and his Thai Rak Thai Party came into power in 2001 under the 1997 Constitution designed by political reformists. Thaksin Shinawatra was the country top telecommunications and media tycoon. His declared asset (including his family) was worth 15,630 million baht (Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker 2004).   Under Thaksin government the media reform agenda was geared towards privatization. That is to move public/state asset into the hands of private enterprise which he commanded the largest share. Hence, state enterprises such as the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT), Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT), and the Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT) were quickly privatized (see detail on Thaksin’s privatization project in Ukrist Pathmanand and McCargo 2005). He then stepped in to privatize Army Television Channel 5 with the assistant of his cousin, General Chaiyasit Shinawatra, Army Commander-in-Chief and Chair of the Board of Channel 5. On state Channel 11, owned and operated by the Public Relations Department, the government planned to digitize and commercialize the station (Maleerat Kaewka 2005).

                               Former iTV crews

                Over and above the privatization project Thaksin used his business power to expand his media empire further in both the broadcast and print media. Shin Corp, the flagship corporation of Thaksin Shinawatra, bought 39% controlling share of iTV prior to the general election in 2001. Shin Corp subsequently increased its share to 77.48% when it bought shares from Siam Commercial Bank (who sold 37.52% of its 55% shares) and other shareholders. The editorial positions and production of news was re-arranged to serve Shin Corp and its new master. Shin Corp later demanded that the annual concession fees be lowered from 200-400 million to 230 million baht on par with other commercial television stations. In addition, it wanted to change the content ratio from 70% information to 50% information and 50% entertainment. (Mollana Nakmanee 2003). In addition, a family member of the Secretary General of Thai Rak Thai Party, Suriya Jungrungruangkit, bought 20% stake in the Nation Multimedia Group. The Malinond family who owned television Channel 3 is also part of Thaksin’s political, media and business network along with Thailand’s major film and music corporations such as Major Cineplex and EGV Entertainment, GMM Media and RS Promotion (Ukrist Pathmanand and McCargo 2005). As such Thaksin was in the most powerful position, though only for a brief period, to dominate the entertainment media and terrestrial television stations. Thaksin’s drastic move to monopolize and control the media and entertainment industry boomeranged when the iTV 23 rebel reporters, who were sacked, fought back in court. And journalists and readers who formed the group called ‘Friends of Matichon’ protested against GMM Grammy in its bid to buy 25% shares of Matichon (Pongsak Srisod, Nation Sudsubda 19 Sept 2005). Though Thaksin could control television he still needed the print media to convince the middle class, the elite and business people. Failing to buy or co-opt the mainstream press his media team set up a new brand, ‘Reporter’, of multi-media comprised of news magazine, website and radio to battle the pro-reform media during the latter part of his tenure. They were dubbed ‘ad hoc media’ or ‘sÜe tiem’ by the pro-reform group (Arunee Iamsirichoke 2007).

                Thaksin’s acquisition of the media and the government neo-liberal policy to privatize state media earned him more enemies than friends during his tenure. The media industry, pro-reform and anti-reform groups, who are mostly local capitalists, felt threatened by his overwhelming power in the government, the parliament and the business world. Both the reformists and the anti-reform groups have been vexed by his policies and his CEO management style. During the latter part of Thaksin’s first tenure the media started to criticize his arrogance, his wealth and popularity among the Thai Rak Thai constituencies. The pro-reform media openly confront Thaksin in order to delegitimize his political power despite his intimidation tactics, defamation lawsuits, censorship and other maneuvering (Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand 2007). The defamation case between Shin Corp and Supinya Klangnarong, secretary general of CPMR, and Thai Post is one of the high profile test cases between Thaksin and the political reformist.   Thaksin’s effort to set media agenda at all times and to silence critical voices has inadvertently created its side effect. The ‘informational politics’ between Thaksin and the reformists not only produced serious rift among journalists but it has deeply politicized the media.

The anti-Thaksin media

“In this battle between the forces of militant journalism and autocratic rule, both sides will force us to take sides. Militant journalism is in effect a facet of the Thaksin syndrome. In other words, Sondhi Limthongkul’s suicide-bomb mission against Thaksin was the unintended outcome of Thaksin’s very own original offensive to co-opt the press…”                                                                              

( Suthichai Yoon, 1 December2005)                                                                       

               There are at least three groups of anti-Thaksin media. First, the network of pro-reform media, second, media launched by Thaksin’s business enemies, and third Sondhi Limthongkul and his ASTV and Manager Media Group (MMG), a business friend turned foe, whose television program on Channel 9, Muang Tai Rai Subda (Thailand Weekly), was taken off air in September 2005. His dramatic reaction, exposing Thaksin and his government of corruption, conflict of interest and lèse-majesté, sparked off huge discontent that was transformed into mass rallies calling for Thaksin’s resignation.

Network of pro-reform media

Formidable as he was Thaksin’s press manipulation failed to recruit the pro-reform media into his political camp. The consequence was an open division between those pro-Thaksin media and the anti-Thaksin press. The anti-Thaksin camp was led by key columnists from the Nation Multi-Media such as Suthichai Yoon, Sopon Ongkara, Kavi Chongkittavorn; from Thai Post such as Plaew Si-ngern; from Naew Na such as Prasong Soonsiri. Later in 2005 Manager Media Group joined the anti-Thaksin camp (though was previously with the pro-Thaksin group). Boonrak Boonyaketmala, media academic from Thammasat University, came to defend the pro-reform media, ASTV and MMG. He argued that the media must take side. There is no such thing as a professionally neutral media when journalists have to make moral decision. He identified Sondhi and MMG with ‘advocacy journalism’ – journalism with a cause to reform Thai politics (Puchadkarn, 8 December 2005).

From left- Prasong Soonsiri, Sopon Ongkara, Sondhi Limthongkul, Suthichai Yoon, Kavi Chongkittavorn

Apart from the mainstream press media reformist has the newly organized community radio at the local level on their side. The first ‘unlicensed low-power community radio’ from Kanjanaburi province was on air in December 2001. In the following years approximately 150 stations have been set up around the county. Most of these stations received intensive training from the People’s Media Development Institute, TBJA and local media professionals. The training aimed at preparing members of the community and civic groups to learn the basic of radio broadcasting, station management skill and to organize the community to participate in this process (Uajit Wirotetrairat 2005). Their financial support came from the Social Investment Fund (SIF), CivicNet Institute, Local Community Development Institute, Community Development Institute and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS) (Mongkol Baangprapha 2005). In 2002 the 1st National Assembly of the Confederation of Community Radio of Thailand was inaugurated with Dr.Prawase Wasi as the keynote speaker (Matichon 12 October, 2002). This group of community broadcaster claimed their legitimacy over the airwave from their constitutional right guaranteed in Article 40 and Article 26 of the Frequency Allocation Organization Act (Boonsong Jansongrasami 2005).

Political economic opposition

                                            The book series - “Knowing Thaksin” or Ru Tan Thaksin – by Jermsak Pinthong

The second group of anti-Thaksin media was expressly set up to derail Thaksin from power. The oppositional politics of community radio began to surface when TPI Polene Plc., the largest petrochemical corporation which went bankrupt in the 1997 economic crisis, launched FM 92.25 “Community Radio of People who Love Democracy” or Witayu Chumchon Kon Rak Prachatipatai station in Bangkok in 2004 (organized by Prachai Liewpairat – owner of TPI, one of Thaksin’s arch-enemy). Its protest stance rallied business people, bureaucrats, public intellectuals, and the elite to voice their concern over Thaksin’s CEO style and his money politics. Other opposition voices such as http://www.insider.com by Thaksin’s business enemy Ekayuth Anchanbutra, and the book series - “Knowing Thaksin” or Ru Tan Thaksin – by his staunch critics Jermsak Pinthong followed in earnest.   The discursive struggle was to discredit Thaksin in the 2005 general election. But Thai Rak Thai won another landslide victory with 16 million votes and 377 seats in the 500-seat parliament. It re-affirmed Thaksin’s popularity among rural voters and urban poor to the dismay of the middle classes, bureaucracy, opposition capitalist class and the elite.

Sondhi Limthongkul, ASTV and MMG

Sondhi Limthongkul is a Sino-Thai media tycoon who wants to be an Asian media mogul. He was involved with telecommunications and a range of media enterprises of which Puchadkarn/Manager Media is the flagship. Sondhi went bankrupt after the 1997 economic crash with 3,500 million baht debt. He joined Thaksin in order to be bailed out. Thaksin granted Sondhi a television contract – Channel 11/1 and a weekly current affairs talk show, “Muang Tai Rai Subsa” or Thailand Weekly, on MCOT Channel 9. But these were taken away from him when he began to criticize Thaksin. His fall out with Thaksin started the so called Sondhi phenomenon where “Muang Tai Rai Subsa” was organized outdoor, at Lumpini Park, Thammasat University auditorium, and was broadcast live on ASTV, Sondhi’s un-licensed satellite television (Kasian Tejapira 2006). Sondhi’s hard hitting criticism on the government, at a time when the climate of fear was in the air, could mobilize huge crowds and spun off into mass protests in February 2006 and subsequently in 2008.   Sondhi was declared bankrupt again on 20th November 2008 after the rehabilitation program of his multi-billion baht debt failed (Matichon On-line 20 November 2008).              

Informational politics took a critical turn in early 2006, one year into Thai Rak Thai second term, when Thaksin announced the sale of his Shin Corp, including AIS, Thai Com satellite and iTV, valued at 73,000 million baht to Singapore’s Temasek Holding. It prompted storm of criticism from academics, the media, the middle class and social activists. They charged Thaksin of self-interest, selling the nation to Singapore, and guilty of tax evasion (see for instance Sopon Ongkara, Kom Chad Luek, 10 February, 2006, Puchadkarn On-line, 11 February, 2006, Chang Noi, The Nation, 17 February, 2006). The sale of Shin Corp provided the ultimate rationale for the middle class and the elite to demand for Thaksin’s resignation. But the ‘Thaksin Out’ attitude came evidently from years of accusations and discursive struggle of the anti-Thaksin press. Although the anti-Thaksin press was forceful in orchestrating dissenting voices Thaksin was adamant to the outcry that he stepped down. He responded by dissolving parliament and called a snap election in April 2006.

At this juncture Sondhi built a broad network, the People’s Alliance for Democracy or PAD, against Thaksin. The PAD is led by five key leaders; Piphob Thongchai, senior non-governmental organization leader from the Foundation for Children, Somsak Kosaisuk, union leader from the Railway State Enterprise, Chamlong Srimuang, former  head of Phalangdharm Party and Bangkok Governor, and Santi Asoke religious group leader, and Somkiat Phongpaibun, academic and activist from Nakorn Rachasima Rajapat University, who later became a Democrat MP. Supporters of the PAD, initially, were Thaksin’s business oppositions, the elite and royalist, and the middle classes in Bangkok. At the center of these demonstrations was the grand network of mainstream media and the opposition voices under the leadership of Sondhi Limthongkul and ASTV, Manager Media Group’s website, Puchadkarn On-line, and Puchadkarn newspaper. The forceful information network linked by satellite television, ASTV, and local cable services were able to build up its constituencies in the South, and to a lesser extent, in the North and Northeast. Among the five core leaders of PAD Sondhi played the most significant role in his militant propaganda war against Thaksin. During PAD’s 2-month demonstration (February – March 2006) the theme of mobilization was ‘save the nation’ or ‘ku chat’. Yellow ribbon and head ban, representing the royalist sentiment of the crowd, symbolized this extra-parliamentary movement.

As Castells (1997) argued overwhelming business influence in the media is not tantamount to political control in informational politics citing Berlusconi and the Italian media as his example. The media, in Castells’ view, have their own symbolic linkages to the judiciary and prosecutorial institutions of democracy and they could set their own pace through their informational networks to destroy, and finally, make the politician irrelevant. This might, perhaps, explain why Thaksin’s power, image, legitimacy, and political career could not withstand the long series of informational politics and the powerful forces of the judiciary, the military, the capitalist opposition, and notably, the extra-constitutional sanction, behind them (see Pye and Schaffar 2009 and Kasian Tejapira 2006).    

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]