On Friday, May 17 the Commission of Relatives of May 1992 Heroes in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation (hbs) held a roundtable seminar in memory of the 21st anniversary of the Black May incident in 1992. The seminar took place in the Royal Rattanakosin Hotel in Bangkok and focused on the Thai Media Reform, which was implanted in Thailand’s new constitution as a result of the 1992’s uprising. In this context the role of the relatively young National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) was discussed, as well as the general development of the media in Thailand since 1992.
The seminar started with a brief opening speech by Mr. Adul Keawboriboon, who is the chairman of the Commission of Relatives of May 1992 Heroes. In his opening speech Mr. Keawboriboon commemorated the people who died during the protest. Furthermore, he reviewed Thailand’s situation before the Black May incident and stated that freedom of the press has been marginal back then. Television programs were strictly controlled by the government and censorship was a daily occurrence. He stressed the importance of freedom of speech and said that even if progress has taken place, there is more to be done.
Given that in 1992 the internet was far from being as widespread and established as it is today, back then it was quite difficult for civil society to organize protest and collective action. That is why mobile phones played a key role in the 1992’s uprising. Most of the demonstrators used their mobile phones to coordinate the protest. In retrospect, this can be seen as a turning point in Thai history. Modern technology had reached a high grade of distribution in Thai society and became an import factor in everyday life. This development could not be condoned by the government any longer, so the Media Reform was introduced in the aftermath of the Black May events in 1992.
After the Media Reform had come into force, there was not much action noticeable towards a democratization of the media system at first. This changed when the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) was founded in 2011. Before the establishment of the NBTC, Thai television was still controlled by the government. Now, for one and a half years, the NBTC has been in charge and has the function to grant new digital TV channels’ licenses for 2015. From this year on there will be 48 digital TV channels in Thailand: 24 commercial channels, 12 public channels and 12 community channels. The race for these new upcoming licenses for digital channels is formally open to everyone, but in the end the decision about the granting of the licenses still lies in the hands of the National Broadcasting Committee (NBC). To discuss the role of the NBTC, its impact on the media, as well as its institutional design today, several agents of civil society and the media system participated in the hbs-hosted roundtable seminar. The event was moderated by Ms. Makasophon, a former reporter of BBC Thailand.
The speaker Sombat Boonngamanong from the Mirror Foundation introduced himself as an activist and red shirt supporter, who frequently uses the internet to spread his concerns. According to him, media in Thailand can be divided into three parts. At first, there had been Media 1.0; the government-controlled media, which did not allow any criticism at all. Then, he said, there had been the Media Reform, which led to a media system, where critical minds could comment on the government’s action and review it in newspaper articles and through other communication channels. He referred to it as Media 2.0. Finally technological progress had produced social media, where platforms like Twitter or Facebook give everybody the chance to state her or his opinion publicly. This new kind of media he described as Media 3.0 and pointed it out as the most important form of media for the future. Especially young people would turn their backs on television and move on to Social Media and other online-based communication channels.
Mr. Prasong Lerdrattawisut, Director of Isara Institute, stressed the importance of the structure of ownership of the new digital channels. He criticized that there will not be true independence if the question of ownership is only a question of money and power. To his mind, the influence of wealthy business stakeholders, who follow only financial interests and have no concerns about freedom of speech or the quality of the television programs, is too strong. A high degree of diversity would be very important to achieve a media system which is truly independent. In his opinion, the foundation of the NBTC is just a little step towards free media in Thailand. To establish a media system which represents the people’s interest and gives them a voice, the government’s influence as well as the influence of business should be reduced massively, Mr. Lerdrattawisut said. Moreover, he stated that free media can only be found in the community radios right now, whereas today’s television would be far away from that. Furthermore, the establishment of the new digital channels would give the government even more power, because there will be twelve state-controlled channels in the future, which is more than today.
As a representative of the media industry, the reporter Mr. Jom Petchpradub participated in the roundtable seminar and raised critical concerns about the media itself. In his view the media industry should focus stronger on issues of civil society and become an advocate of the people’s interest. Hence, government influence should be reduced. He also stated that business cannot be the answer. As an example for the bad influence of too strong business interests in the media system, he mentioned the case of the television channel iTV. This Thai TV station started in 1995 as a multi-stakeholder project and was the first one to be independent. Presenting investigative journalism iTV used to be very critical and distinguished itself from all other channels (which were all state-controlled by then). However, iTV had to face heavy financial losses during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and finally was overtaken by Shin Corporation. Due to the new ownership iTV's news programme became less critical. Journalists were pressured to downplay negative news about Shin Corporation's owner, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and his Thai Rak Thai party. 21 journalists were discharged, because they raised critical concerns about the company. According to Mr. Petchpradub this example shows how too much political and business influence can lead to negative impacts for the media. He demanded a system of checks and balances to protect media from governmental and political manipulation.
Subsequently, Supinya Klangnarong, a member of the NBTC, joined the meeting. She sees the establishment of the NBTC as a first step towards free media, although she admitted that public concerns are paid too less attention by the commission. Progress is going on, but it needs time, Mrs. Klangnarong said. She holds the view that the Media Reform is strongly influenced by monopolistic powers of the military. The structure of the NBTC supports no group as much as the military: among the eleven members of the commission, five are representing military interests. Furthermore, the chairperson, who is in charge of evaluating the performance of the NBTC, is a former member of the military. Moreover, Mrs. Klangnarong said, that primarily state agencies and the private sector will benefit from the allocation of digital TV channel licenses, whereas the public interest will not profit from the new arrangement. Hence, civil society actions should focus on the licensing process since it is a critical transitional moment concerning the Media Reform in Thailand.
The roundtable seminar finalized with questions from the audience. In this context the issue of the uneven formation of the NBTC was brought up. From the eleven members of the Commission, only two are representing the interests of civil society, whereas other interests are overrepresented. This concern was shared by all of the participants.