Programme on the monarchy stirs anger, bruises public broadcaster
If the decision by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) to take the final instalment of Tob Jote Thailand series on the monarchy off the air last Friday was to avoid creating divisions within society as the public broadcaster's announcement claimed, the result is quite the opposite.Thai PBS has trumpeted the programme as an unprecedented space in the mainstream media for an open discussion on the Thai monarchy and its role under the current political circumstances. True, never before had the issue of the monarchy been so openly scrutinised on the airwaves. Any criticisms of the role of the Royal Family had been confined to seminar rooms or cyberspace. So for the record, Tob Jote will go down in history as the first TV programme to break the taboo.
For four consecutive nights, Tob Jote, which Thai PBS management brands as its flagship programme, featured interviews with four distinguished scholars under the theme "Thai Monarchy Under the Constitution". Its host, veteran magazine editor Pinyo Traisuriyathamma, explained that the program was intended to be a forum where there could be a frank and open exchange of views on the country's most sensitive issue. The intention, he insisted, was to have both loyalists and critics share their views and perspectives on how the monarchy should adapt to the fast-changing Thai society.
But he certainly got more than he bargained for when many viewers concluded that some of the interviews turned out to be more of a monarchy-bashing session than a candid assessment of the highly-revered institution.
They took issue particularly with Somsak Jiamthirasakul, a well-known historian of Thammasat University who was featured in two of the four interviews before his third appearance was axed. For most people, Somsak is less known for his academic records than his no-holds-barred criticism of the monarchy. On the night Somsak squared off with well-known social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, they obviously veered away from what was supposed to be an intellectual exchange on how the monarchy should reform itself to be compatible with future Thailand, as host Pinya said he had wanted. Many viewers squirmed in their seats as they watched what they believed to be televised monarchy-bashing.
Even before the programme ended social media was flooded with angry posts vilifying both the programme host and broadcaster. It was the host's announcement that the Somsak-Sulak conversation would continue the next day that set the stage for what to come next. Of course, the programme had its supporters, who praised its "boldness" for bringing the sensitive issue into the open, but their voices seemed to be drowned out by those who were offended by it.
As the Thai PBS management grappled with the decision whether or not to air the last episode of the series in the face of mounting criticism, a small group of loyalists gathered at the broadcaster's headquarters on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road on Friday to demand that it be taken off the air. The Thai PBS newsroom was divided while the board of governors, the highest authority of Thai PBS, was in favour of going ahead with the programme, in order to demonstrate the editorial independence of the public broadcaster.
But only a few minutes before Tob Jote was to go on air, Somchai Suwanban, the Thai PBS managing director, put a stop to the programme. Puzzled viewers were instead treated to a taped Tob Jote interview on an entirely differently subject. An accompanying on-screen message explained that since the controversial interview series "has caused conflicts in public opinions it needs to be taken off the air to avoid creating divisions within society."
The broadcaster said in a subsequent statement that it also took into consideration the safety of its staff and its responsibility toward society in making the decision.
Whatever the circumstances that prompted the Thai PBS boss to pull the plug, the decision was far from achieving what it was supposed to. While it may have pacified those who resented the programme, it triggered an avalanche of brickbats from sympathisers of Somsak and those who believe Thai PBS had betrayed their trust.
If the cancellation of the programme was to prevent further social division as the Thai PBS management claimed it evidently produced an opposite result. Both the programme and particularly its cancellation have only deepened the division among Thais, as evident from the views expressed in tweets, on Facebook and websites. Despite an official statement from the Thai PBS management denying any outside pressure, many have already come to a conclusion that there was an "invisible hand" behind the axing of Tob Jote.
Cancellation of the programme came as an ironic end to the series. For many, Somsak's repeated argument during the programme that as long as the monarchy remains untouchable it's hard to imagine Thailand being a democratic country didn't need any further proof. Censoring the show for whatever reason only plays into the hand of those who have dragged the monarchy through the mud.
Even if the programme was done in good faith, there are certainly questions about its context and timing. While Thai PBS deserves credit for being bold enough to bring the controversial issue into the open, it is hard to believe that it didn't know what its consequence would be given its sensitivity and the anticipated reactions. By choosing Somsak, and to a lesser extent Sulak, as programme guests, Thai PBS should have known it was stepping into a dangerous zone. Anyone who has listened to Somsak, or read his blogs, has no doubt that there could be no other stauncher critic of the monarchy. His views are often extreme and in fact he has already been charged with lese majeste for some of his comments.
It didn't help that the programme host allowed the two guests to tussle with each other rather than guide them to stick to the theme of the interview and share their perspectives through reasoning and without emotion. When the host decided to have someone as extreme as Somsak to join the debate, he should have anticipated the worst.
While an open and reasoned discourse on the monarchy should be encouraged - and certainly as a public broadcaster, Thai PBS is in a position to take a lead - it's the timing that is probably as crucial. With a country so politically divided and people full of extreme views, any frank debate of such a nature at this juncture is impossible. Any views, no matter how well-intended, would be taken in a context of the current political conflicts and exploited by one side or the other.
It's difficult for outsiders to ascertain as to how well thought-out the monarchy series was before the programme embarked on the venture. But it's understood that under a peculiar arrangement, Tob Jote is the only news programme that is answerable directly to the Thai PBS managing director Somchai. So if the top executive knew what he was doing and gave the programme the go-ahead, there should be no turning back.
There were reports of internal politics that prompted Somchai to remove the episode but ultimately it is management that is held responsible for the decision.
By axing the episode, Thai PBS triggered an unnecessary round of name calling and ranting that only adds to the political divide. But it doesn't mean that going ahead with the episode would have been less damaging. However, for Thailand's first and only public broadcaster, which touts independence as its cornerstone, the decision has seriously undermined its credibility.
The self-censorship runs contrast to the record of the five-year-old Thai
PBS as a brave and independent
While it may not be fair to judge Thai PBS from a single incident, it is undeniable that public confidence in the broadcaster has been badly shaken. Management and the board of governors are composed of people with vast experience and deep understanding of society and they should know better than anybody as to what needs to be done to repair the damage.
Even though Thai PBS has a way to go before it can reach the level of internationally recognised public broadcasters such as the BBC of Great Britain and NHK of Japan, few would dispute its slogan "the broadcaster you can trust". It would be a pity if all of a sudden it occurs to the Thai people that there is now no media outlet with such impact that they can trust anymore.
Thepchai Yong is the former managing director of Thai PBS.