Media Reform and Legitimization Politics in Thailand (3)

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

 

The coup and Thai style democracy

            As the anti-Thaksin movement built up public opinion against Thaksin the military, the elite and the business oppositions were quietly preparing the final showdown. In February 2006 PAD and Sondhi’s media crusade tested out with their call for ‘a royal appointed prime minister’. The King denied because this “would amount to an unconstitutional coup” (Kasian Tejapira 2006). The military coup d’état organized by the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) actually took place on September 19, 2006 while Thaksin was attending the UN Assembly in New York. Parliament was dissolved and the 1997 Constitution revoked. CDRM announced that the military coup was a measure to restore a democratic regime with the king as head of state as the government was creating political rifts, corrupt and interfered with the working of independent regulators, and most of all, Thaksin’s irreverent to the monarchy (CDRM Statement 19 September 2006). Thaksin made attempt to declare a state of emergency on Channel 9 but his counter coup effort failed. CDRM sent troops to all television stations in Bangkok except Nation Channel and ASTV as television is the Janus face of a coup. The mainstream press did not show sign of protest against the coup so were leading academics, social and political activists and public intellectuals. They welcomed and legitimized it (see Thanapol Eawsakul 2007 and Bai Tong Hang 2009).

            The royalist coup as it was subsequently revealed (see Crispin 2006 and Thongchai Winichakul 2008) has several objectives regarding the media. First, the media must legitimize the coup. Second, freedom of expressions especially criticism against the coup and the monarchy must be controlled. Thirdly, media reform is to be reorganized in a new formula that serves the first two objectives. These are woven into the crux of the political usurp that demonstrated that CDRM, later renamed CNS – Council for National Security, intended to rearrange the political regime and to use all forms of media to shore up its legitimacy. Let us first look at the ways in which CNS, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the coup appointed government of General Surayud Chulanond negotiate with the media to reach their objectives. Then we will turn to the notion of Thai Style Democracy which is the long term goal of the coup in order to understand the significance of the media in this process.

The coup, freedom of expressions and media reform

            In 2007 Freedom House survey ranked Thailand 126th among 192 countries whereas Reporter San Frontier ranking was 135th among 169 countries on the index of freedom of expressions (Freedom House and RSF World Press Freedom Index 2007). This is a sharp fall from 2000 (ranked 29) and 2006 (ranked 107). After the coup in September 2006 community radio stations of all political shades were closed down for several months. [i] Stations that were sympathetic to Thaksin, particularly in the north, were threatened by the military. Websites opposing the coup such as www.midnightuniv.org, www.saturdaynews.org, www.19Sept.org, and www.hi-thaksin.net, were banned. Thousands of websites were blocked by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) and the number increased into ten of thousands in 2007. CNN.com and YouTube were temporarily blocked in January 2007 after the video clips of Thaksin’s interview were posted (Phansasiri Kularb 2007). These actions were based on CDRM Decree 5/2549 specifying closure of websites and media that were deemed harmful to the democratic regime with the king as head of state. The mainstream press which cheered the coup duly practiced self-censorship. So, the coup makers were, initially, able to control the political situation, announced an interim constitution and set up a new government without much protest.

            Many scholars have documented in detail that the coup in 2006 is different than the coups in the previous decades (see Ukrist Pathmanand 2008, Connors and Hewison 2008 for instance). The ways in which freedom of expressions are curtailed also differed starkly. Although immediately after the coup CDRM put tight control on the media the months that followed see a benign authoritarian power collaborating with the media. It is far from an exercise of naked power because it must keep the press in concert with the coup until Thaksin is completely out of Thai politics and a new consensus is achieved. CDRM or CNS must rely on a vociferous press such as Sondhi and ASTV, and the anti-Thaksin media to legitimize the coup. This calls for careful dealings and negotiations. CNS started out by inviting representatives from media associations to seek their political support. They were also asked to join the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly. The media professional associations sent 3 representatives to the 100-member Constitutional Drafting Assembly. Manit Suksomchit, one of the representatives from Thai Rath newspaper, the highest circulation paper, sat in the inner circle of the 35-member Constitutional Drafting Committee (The National Press Council of Thailand 2007). The Constitutional Drafting Committee was chaired by Prasong Soonsiri, advisor of Naew Na daily newspaper and former Secretary of the National Security Council under General Prem Tinasulanond premiership between 1981- 1988. There were protests by young journalists that press independence would be compromised but senior journalists reasoned that CNS provided the rare opportunity for them to lobby for a new press law from inside (Arunee Iamsirichoke 2007). [ii]

In light of the plan to move towards a consolidated Thai style democracy CNS and the NLA quickly passed five media laws in 2007-2008 aimed at curtailing criticism of CNS, the military and the monarchy. The media laws that were revoked have been enacted decades ago; in 1930 (film), 1941 (print) and 1955 (broadcasting), with only slight amendments in some of them. It is a historical move for the coup and NLA to replace them with new ones in a swift media law package. These are; the Computer-related Crime Act (July 2007), the Press Registration Act (December 2007), the Public Broadcasting Organization Act (January 2008), the Radio and Television Broadcasting Act (March 2008) and the Film and Video Act (June 2008). A closer look shows that there is a dramatic shift in the mode of media control in these new media laws except the Computer-related Crime Act. While CNS and NLA aimed at using the media to build a new political consensus they agreed to give the industries limited economic freedom. The industries, on the other hand, cooperated by practicing strict self-censorship on political expressions.

Let us take a closer look at these media laws. Both the Press Registration Act and the Film and Video Act came as a result of years of lobbying by the industries. The regulation of the print media, film and video is moved to the Ministry of Culture away from the authority of the Police Department and its mode of security control. The Press Registration Act deregulates to the point that the publisher is no longer responsible for any liability incurred in the content. The legal responsibility is delegated to the author and news source instead. On the other hand, film and video must be filtered through a film rating system of which banning is included in the seven-level rating classification. And the first level before the G or general viewing classification is a ‘must-see’ classification. The rating system is, therefore, half open with a pungent limit to the relaxation on film censorship (Asia Media Forum 6 August 2009).

            On the broadcast media there is a drastic reversal of fortune. Firstly, CNS transformed iTV from a private station into a state sponsored station under a new label called ‘public broadcasting station’. the Public Broadcasting Organization Act is enacted to legitimize the nationalization of iTV after CNS seized the station from Shin Corp and Thaksin. The new public television law proposed by reformists could be seen as a re-branding strategy to boost the weakened media reform agenda and to reclaim the fruit of the 1992 reform set out by Anand Panyarachun. The finance of the station would come from excise tax (alcohol and cigarette) earmarked at 2,000 million baht annually (Somkiat Tangkitvanich 2008).

            Secondly, the 2008 Radio and Television Broadcasting Act could be seen as the victory of the anti-reform military industrial alliance over Thaksin’s rising media monopoly and media reformists who planned to restructure the ownership of radio and television. The law was drafted by the broadcasting law committee in the Surayud government and sent to the NLA for legislation. The focus of the new law is on sub-dividing the classification in the state/public category so that state agencies, the military in particular, could expand their terrain and continue their domination in the broadcasting system. Private concessions on television remains protected in the 2007 Constitution as was in the 1997 Constitution. In addition, there is a gesture of liberalization on content regulation since representatives from the Thai Broadcast Journalist Association (TBJA) proposed to use the same model with the National Press Council on self-regulation. TBJA would issue its own code of ethics as a measure of self control (TBJA 10 April 2009). But to further guarantee the corporate right of the military and state agencies the Radio Frequency Allocation Organization Act is undergoing revision. The aim is to consolidate state political economic control by merging the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC). [iii]

The four media laws discussed here demonstrate that media reform has been reshaped by the coup and the extra-constitutional power behind the coup. Once Thaksin was ousted the blue print on media reform has been altered. Each media industry, proponent and opponent of media reform all receive a share, albeit unequal, in the new arrangement which is legalized by the NLA (based on the sanction of the military coup). The bureaucratic state has reclaimed its ownership and the right to control the business in the media industries. Sondhi Limthongkul, unfortunately, is left out of this equation despite his role in the anti-Thaksin movement. While the pro-reform/anti-Thaksin press go along with self-censorship Sondhi and his ASTV and PAD have been adamant. They continue to practice their militant journalism by criticizing the military, the military appointed government and the political crisis after the 2006 coup. During this time television and radio programs heavily propagate nationalism, loyalty to the monarchy and self sufficiency economy.

The medium suffered most from the new law is the Internet. The 2007 Computer-related Crime Act, under the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT), prohibits the distribution and falsification of information and visual images deemed harmful to national and economic security, public safety and services. Official can seize the server or raid the suspected computer, and service provider who is found supporting the offense will also be charged with the crime. The penalty ranges from three to fifteen years imprisonment (Article 9-16). The military appointed government argued that the Act was a tool to fight cyber crime such as theft and other illegal activities. [iv] The real intention, however, was to censor political expressions critical of the monarchy and the military. In August 2007, one month after the Act was passed two webmasters, Ton Chan and Phraya Pichai, were arrested and jailed for two weeks. They were charged with lèse-majesté (Prachatai, 14 October, 2007). Another important objective was to suppress the voice of the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Control of freedom of expressions on the Internet has, paradoxically, gone back to the security mode of past decades though the new medium is ubiquitous and supposed to be un-blockable.

The whole package of media law is an illustration of a mixed concept of state censorship and regulation/de-regulation on the growing media industries. Under the military guided structure and hegemony there is a moment of truce among all concern. On the one hand, the laws inscribed for limited economic liberalization along with voluntary self-regulation by media industries. On the other hand, the Computer Crime-related Act serves as the panopticon of free expressions on the Internet. In this milieu the unwritten text is much more potent. The new social contract demands journalists to work under an unprecedented harsh self-censorship regime. Professionalism and independence is secondary to economic survival in the eyes of media professional associations or media business/industrial associations.

Thai Style Democracy: Democracy with the King as Head of State

            ‘Thai style democracy’ or ‘Prachathipatai Bab Thai Thai’ is a homegrown hybrid of half-hearted electoral democracy mixed with the military, elite and bureaucratic over-dominant power in the parliament and government. The period during Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond eight-year administration in the 1980s has been recognized as the working model of ‘Thai style democracy’ or semi-democracy with the king as head of state – and rapid economic development. In fact, Thai style democracy goes as far back as 1947-1951 when monarchists instituted the lèse-majéste concept in the 1949 constitution that, ‘no one could charge or bring any action against the king’ (Thongchai Winichakul 2008). After a brief period of parliamentary rule during Pibun’s second tenure Sarit Thanarat’s  military government promoted the stature of the monarchy as a means to legitimize his power gained from the coup in 1957 (Thak Chalermtiarana 1979). The righteous monarch has a moral rule or in modern term - ‘good governance’ which politicians lack. Thus, coup makers are savior of Thai style democracy or Democracy with the King as Head of State. Ukrist Pathmanand (2008) pointed out that the ‘royalist military’ legitimized the coup by using the royalist discourse that was generated by the anti-Thaksin movement and the more generalized propaganda associated with King Bhumibol’s reign. In addition, Hewison (2009) concluded in his lecture on Thai style democracy that one should not see the military as power seeker but they should be perceived in terms of protector of Thai style democracy. Their role in ousting Thaksin is the ultimate means to preserve Thai style democracy from the power grip of a prime-minister deemed disloyal and a challenge to the monarchy.

            As McCargo (2009) recently argued Thaksin was ousted in 2006, “not because of the Temasek deal, or because of corruption or abuses of power, but because of his symbolic challenges to the monarchy”.  It appeared that the real objective of the coup was to return to the elite compromise in the 1980s on limited liberalism, palace veto and privileges and military corporate rights (Connors and Hewison 2008). To achieve this goal there must be measures to eradicate Thaksin and his networks and to start another cycle of discursive struggle in order to hegemonize public opinion that a top-down political system is suitable for the good of Thai society. From 2006 onward judicialization worked hand in hand with media manufacturing of public consent on the notion of Thai style democracy . [v]

           

            The limit of Thai style freedom of expression

            Whereas Thaksin used his agenda setting, buying up of media and defamation lawsuit       to control dissenting voices the coup employed a collaborative strategy with the media plus heavy censorship surrounding the discourse on Thai style democracy. CNS was concerned that the media and new information and communications technology would be the avenue for defamation content on lèse-majesté. Defamation of the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent is a crime according to Article 112 in the Penal Code. The law considered lèse-majesté an offence relating to internal security of the kingdom. A guilty verdict could send the person to jail for three to fifteen years (Sinfah Tansarawuth 2009).

            During the skirmishes between Thaksin and Sondhi in 2005 lèse-majesté was used as a political tool to show one’s loyalty and to gain public favor. At the aftermath of the coup in 2006 charges on lèse-majesté against individuals have increased dramatically. These range from an Australian author to academics, politician to engineer and ordinary citizen, unionist and demonstrator to social activist. [vi] and MICT have shut down more than 2,000 websites alleged to have contained lèse-majesté material. In early 2009, a website was created to protect the king which makes it possible for any citizen to report lèse-majesté cases (International Federation for Human Rights 2009). The most recent case was in August 2009. Darinee Charnchoengsilapakul (alias Da Torpedo) was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for her public speech, on three accounts, at the ‘Red Shirt’ political rallies (http://www.prachatai.com/journal/2009/08/25622). So far there are over 30 cases of lèse-majesté in process (see detail in http://lmwatch.blogspot.com/).

            In March 2009, over 200 international scholars and dignitaries made a plea for the Thai government to reform lèse-majesté law stating that their intention is to prevent abuses and to prevent the possibility of further damage to the international reputation of Thailand and the monarch. Significantly, it said that frequent abuse of the lèse-majesté law against political opponents undermines democratic processes and would heighten criticism of the monarchy. It also called for the release of those who were already convicted (Pravit Rojanaphruk 2009). In addition to this the International Federation for Human Rights issued a report in July 2009 stating that;

            “FIDH considers that article 112 of the Thai Penal Code is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Thailand in 1996. The harsh prison sentences for lèse-majesté (up to 15 years in prison) appear blatantly disproportionate in relation to the harm caused and the impossibility to exculpate oneself by demonstrating the truth of the statements.

              Though the situation with the right and freedom of expression seems to deteriorate dissident voices on the Internet, local and alternative media continue to thrive. There are at least two groups of media which shun the grip of censorship; the small independent media by civic groups and local media operators – community radio and cable television, and the political media organized by Thaksin’s supporters, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and the Red Shirt. The pro-Thaksin media are prominent in Bangkok and in the provinces. UDD’s People Channel, D-Station, is a satellite television that links up the pro-Thaksin networks of local radio and cable televisions. In 2009 UDD launched its weekly tabloid journal, Thai Red News, and its website, www.thairednews.com, and Mahachon Wan Ni – Truth Today edition newspaper and Thong Daeng bi-weekly magazine. Another source of opposition voice would be none other than Thaksin’s own internet network such as www.Thaksinlive.com and his video and phone links to various communication nodes in his network. In addition, Sondhi and his ASTV and Puchadkarn newspaper and website, with PAD supporters, will be the roguish anti-Thaksin and royalist media that continue to radicalize social and political actions. In spite of the military hegemony the informational politics of the anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin groups keep on with their battle as the political legitimacy crisis flares up and down. [vii]

 

Whither media reform?

            If we look at media reform in terms of the guarantee and extension of equal rights of access and freedom of expressions for all citizens the struggle of media tycoons and the royal-liberal alliance of the reformist do not see these at the center of reform. The elite, the middle class, academic and public intellectuals, and the media rather seek rights and freedom that serve their own interests. The cycles of political crises in 2000s show that the media play a center role in the ‘informational politics’ to manufacture consent, to propagate and hegemonize the public and electoral constituencies.          As we discussed at length in this chapter the elite struggles for legitimacy have been increasingly regressive and un-democratic in nature. There are more lèse-majesté cases, for instance, while the media industries and state agencies make effort to return to their status quo of large corporate ownership and state monopoly. The media are deeply politicized as they become part of the economic and political struggle of the royal-conservative/authoritarian and royal-liberal networks, on the one hand, and Thaksin’s monopolistic networks, on the other hand. But the coup in 2006 has decisively back tracked the situation to the 1960s when military dictators hold the highest power in patronizing political and economic interests. All stakeholders in the media industries, as well as telecommunications, are subsumed under the hegemony of the bureaucratic state. This could be seen as a critical struggle between the forces of global capital and national capital while local capital takes this opportunity to organize their version of local media to compete in this changing environment.

            In the eye of reformist like McChesney (2007) the critical juncture of media reform or communication transformation is based on three conditions;

                             “first, the revolutionary new communication technology that undermines the existing system,second, the content of the media system is increasingly discredited or seen as illegitimate, and third, a major political crisis – severe social disequilibrium – in which the existing order is no longer working and there are major movements for social reform” (2007, p.10).

       

   These conditions seem rife in Thai society where media and communication, beyond the industrial and market sphere, have been transformed in ways unimagined by reformists. Throughout the tumultuous legitimacy crises new forms of media such as website and blog on the internet, are challenging the dominant power. The unexpected outcome, of local media proliferation, cable television, connected with national and global satellite feed, and community radio in particular, might be an indication of the rise of the rural peasantry, lower-middle and urban middle classes in the provinces. There is a great demand for news and information that is both relevant to the community and in common with those in the metropolitan center of Bangkok. It is a basic communication right of a citizen that has been unfulfilled for decades. This is something beyond the vision of reformist whose interests are concentrated on power sharing among the elites themselves.

            Finally, the politicization of political, social and cultural institutions, the bureaucracy and the media to the point of radicalized civil disobedience and violent actions have cultivated a new political consciousness among ordinary citizens. Though there are fears of recurrent violence and hate speech the prevalence of ‘political expression’ of all forms, and all shades is a common phenomenon on the streets, in the family, in schools and offices, and in all sorts of media. People make political comments on the internet, radio and television (over the phone) just like columnists and journalists do. The availability of a wide range of media channels keep audiences well informed while they readily allow these citizens to express their political frustrations and grievances. They learn to speak the unspeakable. It may seem that, amidst the deep and unremitting political crises and social disequilibrium, reform is gradually taking shape by a long and arduous detour beyond the design of reformists and the anti-reform movements.

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] At the time there were more than 4,000 community radio stations scattered throughout the country. They were organized by local capitalists, media professionals, and local politicians.

                [ii] Among the representatives in the NLA the media category comprised of representatives from the professional associations; the President of the Press Council, the Thai Journalist and Newspaper Association (TJA), and the Thai Broadcast Journalist Association (TBJA). Apart from these there were owners of the most influential private television stations (under state concession) and newspaper; Channel 3 and Channel 7, and Thai Rath, respectively. In addition, there were 2 representatives from the Manager Media Group, 1 representative from Daily News and 1 from Matichon, and several high profile media personality (Matichon, 2006).

                [iii] The 2007 Constitution prohibits politicians from owning the media (Article 48) and any cross-ownership among different types of media (Article 47).

                [iv] On May 9, 2007 the Computer-related Crime Act was passed with a 119 vote against 1 nay vote in the 242-member NLA (Supichaya Rakbua, Bangkok Post, 10 May 2007).

                [v] The King’s speech on 25 April 2006 to the new judges was seen as a signal for the judiciary to take actions against Thaksin (see Kasian Tejapira 2006).

                [vi] In January 2009 Suwicha Thakhor, an engineer, was arrested for his comment posted in the Internet. In April he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmistress of Prachatai on-line press, was charged and arrested in March under Article 15 of the Computer-related Crime Act. She was released on bail and the case is under investigation (Thai Netizen Network – TNN, 26 May 2009).

                [vii] PAD called another mass rallies in 2008. It staged a ‘general up-rising’ in August seizing the National Broadcasting Television (NBT) and occupying Government House and Don Meuang Airport and Suvarnabhumi Airport to pressure the government (PAD statement 12/2551). The political theatre of the 193-day protest was broadcasted live every night on ASTV, with highly radicalized rhetoric of PAD leaders and its supporters (McCargo 2009). In April the Red Shirt protested against ASEAN Summit in Pattaya and defied a military crack down in Bangkok.