I. Rationale: Why the Thai Media Forum?
In Thailand external and internal deficits challenge the media sector to perform its vital functions in the democratic process, namely to provide orientation to enable deliberation, and to blame and shame wrongdoers to control decision-makers. Challenges such as (self-) censorship, political and economic pressure, physical threats to and poor education of journalists, hate speech and character assassinations need to be addressed and discussed. The legal framework of the media sector needs to strike a balance between freedom of expression, consumer rights, and social responsibility. In order to enable the media to effectively perform their role, structural reforms are needed. For the implementation of reforms, political will is key. The Media Forum aims to build a rainbow coalition of stakeholders with a view to create political will for reform.
II. Long term Objective of the Media Forum
The long-term objective of the “Thai Media Forum” is to build a democratic media framework that enables media actors to effectively perform their role in the democratic process.
Given the political economy of the Thai media sector, fundamental reform will only be brought about by a struggle. Strong and lasting political will by key decision-makers is indispensable. To build and sustain political will, a coalition of determined stakeholders is needed that can join forces to mobilize support, shape public opinion, and pressure policy makers.
Today, progressive media stakeholders are fragmented, polarized and often marginalized. To form a rainbow coalition between stakeholders with diverging and sometimes detrimental interests and priorities, a common platform is needed. The Media Forum brings together media stakeholders from different perspectives with a prospect to serve as the nucleus for a rainbow coalition. By working together, seeking to find common interests and agreeing on a common platform, stakeholders will build mutual trust. The aim is to join forces to increase political leverage with a view to promote a lowest-common-denominator media reform agenda.
The Media Forum needs to clarify and specify its agenda and set priorities. The following issues have been suggested as potential concerns in the long run:
1. Performance, governance and independence of the NBTC
2. Regulation: The tension between media freedom/ freedom of speech and social responsibility
3. Regulation: The tension between media freedom and consumer protection
4. Civic education, e.g. the promotion of media literacy
5. The political economy of the media sector: How to introduce competition, efficiency, and innovation? How to ensure autonomy of journalists from economic and political interference? How to enable the media to perform their role in the democratic process?
III. Working mechanism of the Media Forum
The Media Forum Assembly will act as a decision making body for the coalition. It will determine the agenda, agree on common positions, recommend actions and endorse proposals. The Assembly will gather two to three times per year. The Assembly aims to attract ever more media stakeholders with a view of forging a rainbow coalition.
The working groups
The Working Groups are the core instrument of the Thai Media Forum to develop a common position on specific reform initiatives and to prioritize ideas and to set up a clear agenda. Covering a wide spectrum of organizations and perspectives, working group members will identify potential issues, do the necessary field research, set the agenda and sketch out possible compromise positions. Its proposals serve as the starting point for the debate in the Forum Assembly. Working group members will strive to find consensus or document controversial points eventually preparing the Media Forum Assembly to make final decisions on the course of action.
IV. Initial project phase: NBTC Watch
The newly founded National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) has the potential to be the key institution for good media sector governance. However, its performance during the initial six months gave rise to concerns that NBTC internal politics and governance hamper its efforts to realize its full potential to be an agent for media sector reform. Powerful groups have managed to influence major decisions and to safeguard their interests. As a result participants discerned that NBTC policies and governance did not live up to their expectations.
Therefore, it will be crucial that reform-minded stakeholders also engage with the Commission and make their influence felt. In order to help the NBTC to cope with upcoming challenges and ensure that it can live up to its full potential as a regulator, a coalition of reform-minded stakeholders needs to organize, mobilize, lobby and campaign for a common progressive reform agenda.
The short term objective the Thai Media Forum is to “watch the watchdog”. ‘NBTC Watch’ will closely monitor the internal governance, political independence and performance of the NBTC. Should any abuses occur, the coalition may decide to publicly blame and shame those responsible. Moreover, NBTC Watch aims to monitor key policy issues, and seeks to identify common positions amongst participants. The coalition may decide to publicly articulate common positions, or endorse those who support such policies.
The following issues have been proposed by participants as focal points for NBTC watch:
1. Performance: How is the Masterplan implemented? (e.g. Are benchmarks and criteria met? Are deadlines being delayed?)
2. Media Freedom and Consumer Protection: How does the NBTC regulate or sanction “black sheep” (e.g. media outlets with the sole purpose to promote harmful products)? What is the role of NBTC in consumer protection? Should the NBTC define criteria for community radios and/ or provide funding?
3. Governance: Transparency, accountability and legality of internal conduct. (e.g. How is NBTC budget spent? Are public hearings meaningful and public input reflected in decisions made? Are internal decision-making processes transparent?)
In order to facilitate participants from different backgrounds to come together, it was felt that controversial issues such as the tension between media freedom and social responsibility (e.g. censorship, hate speech, cyber mobbing etc.) should not be tackled in the initial phase of the project. As noted above, in the long run, the agenda of the Media Forum will be broadened beyond its narrow initial the focus on the NBTC related issues.
V. Next steps
The overall consensus of this first meeting was to establish the Media Forum and start its work to monitor the NBTC. FES and HBS as the co-hosts of the Thai Media Forum are committed to support the Media Forum with expertise (e.g. by commissioning research papers), procedural guidance (e.g. facilitating the working groups), financial support as well as organizational and administrative help. In order to ensure full Thai ownership, the policy positions promoted by the coalition will have to be determined by Media Forum members.
In the coming weeks, committed stakeholders will determine the watch list for NBTC Watch along the three priority topics outlined above (Performance, Consumer Protection, Governance). A set of detailed questions need to be formulated that enable the monitors to focus their work. The role of NBTC watch and its relationship with NBTC and the subcommittees needs to be elaborated. Stakeholders will agree on a work plan for 2012 and recommend a working mechanism. Volunteers will start the process of monitoring NBTC work in the selected areas.
An invitation to Thai media sector organizations has been reiterated to serve as hosts of the Media Forum. In the long run, a board of three to four Thai hosts should indicate the multi-partisan character of the Media Forum, and help to mobilize new members from different affiliations.