The mandate of the public broadcaster is once again being violated by a govt that won’t tolerate independent media
For obvious reasons, the military junta set its sights on the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) almost immediately after it came to power in the coup of May, 2014. And Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s latest gripe about its news coverage last week sent a strong signal of what might be in store for Thailand’s first and only public broadcaster.
Thai PBS first hit a raw nerve with the junta when it defied a gagging order for several hours by reporting reactions to the power seizure from academics and politicians, live online. It was certainly a bold move given that all other broadcasters were strictly following the directive from the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to suspend their normal news programmes and broadcast only officially sanctioned announcements.
Though Thai PBS managed to escape the NCPO’s wrath with just a reprimand, the junta had no second thoughts about placing it at the top of its media watch list. Since then, the broadcaster’s every step has been closely monitored. But despite the pressure, Thai PBS either intentionally or by accident has continued to irk the junta with news reports and programmes that are often seen as critical of the military.
The junta has made no attempts to disguise its displeasure with Thai PBS. Prime Minister Prayut has often complained about what he sees as the uncooperative stance of the public broadcaster. In one Cabinet meeting he even suggested that its Bt2-billion annual budget should be given to the Public Relations Department, because the latter would do a better job serving the government. There have also been suggestions from members of the junta-appointed National Assembly that the law governing Thai PBS be amended to place controls on the public broadcaster.
The biggest threat to Thai PBS’s survival as an independent broadcaster came late last year in the form of a proposal to end direct funding for the media organisation. The main source of income for Thai PBS comes from taxes on tobacco and alcohol, which are transferred to its coffers directly by the customs and excise tax agencies without having to go through the normal budgetary process. That financial arrangement was originally designed to ensure that the public broadcaster would not be subject to political interference. But the proposal for a provisional clause in the eventually-aborted draft constitution called for Thai PBS to get approval for its budget from the Finance Ministry. The proposal was put forth on the pretext of introducing financial discipline for the broadcaster but was seen by its opponents as an attempt to erode its independence.
Of course, this is not the first assault on Thai PBS. In fact, since its inception in 2008 the public broadcaster has faced persistent hostility from politicians and those sympathetic with the Shinawatra family. Back then Thai PBS was seen as a reincarnation of ITV, Thailand’s first independent broadcaster, which was born as a result of the pro-democracy uprising in 1992. ITV was taken over by the telecommunication corporation owned by the Shinawatra family and turned into a political mouthpiece, before it was nationalised in the aftermath of the coup in 2006.
General Prayut’s latest open rebuke of Thai PBS is another reminder that independent media are probably the last thing that those in power want to see. And there are few exceptions, even among democratically elected politicians, who tend to talk about press freedom only when they are in opposition or out of power. But once in power, press freedom becomes a secondary issue and one often seen as a threat that needs to be dealt with.
Despite their other differences, elected politicians and those in power at the moment appear to have one thing in common. They seem to believe that the only “good media” are media they can control or that at least sing the government’s tune. And that explains why Thai PBS has been a constant thorn in the side of both the current junta and the elected administrations before it.
Premier Prayut said it all last week when he slammed the public broadcaster for being “one-sided” in its news coverage of the current drought. The junta leader was angry because he thought Thai PBS was giving too much emphasis to people’s suffering while neglecting what the government was doing to alleviate the problems. He underlined the fact that Thai PBS is financed with a state budget, which he claimed should oblige it to help propagate the work of the government.
The prime minister’s line of thinking towards public broadcasting is no different from that of his elected predecessors who were angry that they could not get Thai PBS to toe the line. But such thinking plainly demonstrates they have no understanding of public broadcasting. It seems that their only concern is control, forgetting that the most basic principle of public broadcasting is being independent.
Though it is financed with taxpayers’ money, Thai PBS was not set up to be a government mouthpiece in any way. Its raison d’etre is public service – a universal principle that applies to all public broadcasters. Thai PBS is mandated by law to deliver programmes and services “that encourage public awareness and participation in the building of a just and democratic society”.
Promoting “quality citizenry” through programmes that educate and inform is also part of its mission. There is a long list of objectives that Thai PBS is legally required to accomplish but none has to do with serving the interests of whoever is in power. Besides, General Prayut, who is also heads the all-powerful NCPO, may forget that both the government and the military have more than enough media tools at their disposal to disseminate whatever information they want without depending on Thai PBS.
While the performance of Thai PBS may still leave much to be desired, it has done a commendable job in giving a voice to marginalised sectors of society, especially those at the grass-roots level whose plights and aspirations are often ignored by the mainstream media. This is definitely one area in which Thai PBS can hardly be faulted.
Prayut’s complaints about Thai PBS are the latest danger signal for the organisation. They serve as a warning that those in power have not yet given up attempts to interfere with the public broadcaster. And with absolute power in his hands under Article 44 of the provisional Constitution, the fate of Thai PBS could be bleak.
Meanwhile the onus is also on the new management of Thai PBS to convince the public that, with increasing commercialisation of the broadcasting business and continued control of state-owned media apparatus by those in power, there is a strong need for public broadcasting that is independent and has the public interest at heart.
The best defence for Thai PBS is public support. And it has to make sure that it has that when the crunch comes.
Thepchai Yong is Group Editor-in-Chief of The Nation and former managing director of Thai PBS.