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CAPSULE REPORT: SEAPA report examines media reform challenges facing newly-installed PM

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 21 January 2009 SEAPA report:

Can new Thai PM achieve genuine media reform?
21 January 2009

Newly-installed Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva not only has to institute reforms in the Thai media. He also has to accomplish this task without widening further the cracks within the country's political landscape.

Among his priority is amendment of the 1994 Official Information Law to make official information accessible to the public. Another is to find a workable solution to turn state-owned media National Broadcasting Television (NBT), formerly Channel 11, into a public television similar to the current Thai Public Broadcasting Television (TPBS). Yet another task is to hasten the setting up of a national broadcasting and telecommunication commission to regulate fair distribution and efficient use of broadcast frequencies.

Abhisit outlined his government's media reform agenda in his first meeting with the local media comprising some 100 local editors, journalists and media advocates. The forum was organized by the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), a founding member of SEAPA, on January 13.

Journalists said the current government must finish the task begun earlier. Several laws regulating the broadcast media were passed during the interim government of Gen. Surayudh Chulanont. These included the Public Broadcasting Service Act, creating the country's first public broadcasting television; the 2008 Broadcasting Business Act, allowing private companies and communities to own frequencies previously controlled by the government agencies and the army; and the 2007 Press Registration and Notification Act.

Abhisit's coalition government, however, hinges on the backing of the army and the Democrat Party's attempts to maintain its coalition partners, not to mention fending off the pro-Thaksin opposition.

In retrospect, the current political problems are partially attributed to a lapse in the media's professional ethics. The media was accused of taking sides and fuelling the conflicts. Moreover, during the decade after the ratification of the pro-media reform 1997 Constitution, the legal and structural reform process were not taken seriously by the then incumbent regimes.

Abhisit, who as an opposition figure has been a supporter of public access to information and privatization of state media, could end up finding these issues "too hot to handle". The media reform agenda would definitely touch a sensitive nerve of major stakeholders in the broadcast and telecom sector, particularly the Army, which always invoked national security to retain its ownership of broadcasting facilities. The army owns Channels 5 and 7 and has a network of more than 100 radio stations nationwide, while the Public Relation Department owns Channel 11 and some 200 radio stations.

Abhisit admits it's a tough balancing act. "If we are to be extreme to say current frequencies could not be taken back to the public, then the reform would not take place or all frequencies must be taken back from current owners, we are not going to solve any problem," he said.

A potential hot spot is the restructuring of NBT to make it a public and impartial television channel that is free from the government and politicians' influence.

The prime minister also would have to ensure fair and transparent rules that will inevitably upset the 4,000 community radios that are operating illegally under the new broadcasting business law. Without a well-thought strategy, this could be a potential blow to the national reconciliation the country urgently needs, as a huge number of community radio stations in the North and Northeast are used as propaganda tools of the pro-Thaksin movement.

Another big question is how to deal with the controversial operation of satellite-transmitted ASTV of media mogul-turned leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Sondhi Limthongkul.

More importantly, is how Abhisit's government could handle anti-lese majeste drive without upsetting free expression on the Internet. Internet freedom has been severely trampled over the past few years. The new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) minister recently announced that 2300 websites have been closed and 400 of them found to have contents insulting on the monarchy. On January 19, the justice minister was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying that some 10,000 websites allegedly contain lese majeste messages.

Abhisit said he would tolerate criticism as he believes in freedom of expression and public accountability but in return he said he would expect the media to perform its watchdog role in a professional manner. "I would only defend myself if I am not treated fairly," he said.

The Democratic Party to which Abhisit belongs to, is known for its tough stance about the media. Its former leaders, including Chuan Leekpai and Sanan Kajonprasart, who is now deputy prime minister, have brought several defamation lawsuits against newspapers.

But will Abhisit's encouraging remarks about freedom of expression on January 13 banish this perception and, more important, push through with the long overdue reforms in Thai media?

For further information on the lese majeste laws, see:

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