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TV soap ban shows many heads are in the clouds

Like many others, my first reaction, when I heard of the controversy, was "Nua Mek what?" Two days later, again, like many others, I was googling like crazy, looking for updates, comments and video clips. My social media timeline was so full of it, and you couldn't leave home without equipping yourself with some background about that soap opera - if you didn't want to be dubbed a dinosaur.

No matter how much I have learned about "Nua Mek", those who censored it must have learned something about censorship in this digital age. In the space of three days, a TV drama that few people had known about, and which the authorities wanted no more people to know about, has become a household name. The plot is being scrutinised by every Facebook user, constitutional expert and media activist. Conspiracy theorists have been busy speculating who pulled the drama off the air and under whose order.

It doesn't matter now who ordered the ban. The plot, which, I must repeat, not many people had been aware of, was partly about an evil telecom empire, and the rest is history. If they had allowed the drama to reach its climax (which it was about to) and end (which it was also about to), the show would have elicited a few chuckles at best. Life would have gone on without "Nua Mek" featuring on every newspaper's front page and dominating most status updates on the social media.

Failing to anticipate that the ban would backfire is forgivable, though. Assuming that the ban would be a good service to telecom bigwigs was, however, a cardinal sin. Telecom companies - or holders of telecom power - are fashionable villains in many types of entertainment media, except in those feelgood commercials featuring the unrealistic work ethics of their technicians. The "Nua Mek" ban did not send the message that the drama was giving the telecom industry a bad name; it gave the impression that "Nua Mek" was telling a truth that someone didn't want people to know or be reminded about.

Instead of banning "Nua Mek", how about funding a rival drama portraying telecom owners as those we see in the commercials? The plot could highlight a totally selfless man who has had enough of his subscribers' monthly fees and now wants to give back to society. Screenplay writers could have him abandon his wealth, play honest politics and become a champion of the poor.

Corny as it may sound, such a plot would be better than banning a drama that says the opposite. If Channel 3 ended 2012 being insensitive to outright criticism, it has started 2013 being over-sensitive to something we are not quite sure about. While the public uproar over the "Rai Som" controversy was loud and clear, we did not hear any complaint about "Nua Mek". And if the government was involved in any way, it has already bailed out, with aides of the prime minister saying she is too busy to watch soap operas.

Channel 3 did do one thing consistently in both cases, though. There were no press conferences. The executives talked selectively to trusted media members. The limited liaisons with the news media provided murky explanations and left key questions unanswered. Both incidents have put Channel 3 in what will likely become a familiar spot - where it is seen as a politically dependent media organisation specialising in expedience.

There are claims that the lightning censorship had something to do with national security and Thailand's revered institution. Such claims fly in the face of many things. First, the plot did not treat royalty with contempt or endanger Thai tradition or culture by any means. Second, everyone familiar with how Channel 3 functions knows that the screenplay must have been approved long beforehand. And third, the bad guy who is supposed to be sucked to the hellish centre of the earth at the end of the drama is related to the political side going after vested business interests.

As usual, Thai politics has asserted itself, banged the table and told us this is how things should be. It doesn't matter how small the non-political space is already in Thai society. Channel 3, once praised for innovative, intelligent dramas with few cliches, has made a U-turn and told its audience that they should go back and watch romantically jealous men and women exchanging blows, ugly stares and verbal venom.

Some may say the makers of "Nua Mek", knowing Thailand's political situation, played with fire and got what was coming. If that is true, those who ordered the swift ban were probably more foolish. How else can we describe a bunch of people who wanted to shut down a TV drama but ended up amplifying its desired message? Democracy has also been mocked by this latest real-life episode in Thai politics, but it may also be laughing its head off.


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