Political Imbalance in Thailand Challenges Press Freedom Defender

4 May 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Political imbalance and anxieties in Thailand are challenging the Thai media and civil society to come forward in defense of freedom of expression, a public forum held in Bangkok concluded on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

The forum, titled, “How to Reform the Media to Better Serve the Public Interest” attracted a multisectoral audience of more than 100 people. Students, teachers, members of media advocacy groups and NGOs, and ordinary Thai citizens attended the discussion.

The event–co-organised by Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA)—was held in celebration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) sponsored the forum in the context of the organization’s overriding theme for 2005: Media and Good Governance.

During the forum, resource persons from the academe, the media, and Thailand’s political arena, premised their discussions on the reelection of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his ruling Thai Rak Thai Party in the February general elections. The Thai Rak Thai captured more than two-thirds majority of the 500-seat national assembly, compromising the institution’s built-in check-and-balance system, and supposedly bolstering the government’s influence on the Thai media.

The panelists expressed concern that an ongoing process to reform the Thai media sector has been derailed from its original objectives of ending state monopoly over the broadcast industry and creating broadcast services that serve the public and provide an environment of pluralism in society.

The TJA also said the present political climate amounts to an “era of discrediting the Thai media.” The association accused Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of demonizing the press and inciting distrust of the media.

In a statement, the TJA said the Thaksin administration has turned to “cheap tactics” to foment public hatred against the media and undermine its independence.

Thaksin has had numerous testy episodes with the press. He and his family’s business interests, meanwhile, have waged notorious battles with the media in court. Media advocate Supinya Klangnarong is being sued for $10 million by Shin Corp.—a congolmerate led by the Thaksin family—after the activist noted a rise in Shin’s profits coinciding with Thaksin’s rise to power. Finally, the Thai media is conscious that Thaksin and his allies in the business community can wield tremendous influence on media companies, either through its Board rooms, or via a substantial amount of advertising revenue that they control.

Most recently, Thaksin and his members of administration accused the media of making up reports on allegedly anomalous government transactions for a new international airport.

For all the perceived stare-downs, Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said during the Press Freedom conference that the media should not tolerate a culture of interference from government. “To ensure that the public will benefit from media reform, the media itself needs to be free from the dictates of pure market mechanisms,” Abhisit said. The opposition leader said profit-making should not compromise media professionalism.

Abhisit agreed that the current political atmosphere, particularly the absence of political equilibrium in parliament, bodes ill for transparency and accountability in government, and in the media reform process itself. “It takes courage and commitment on parts of the politicians, the media and the public to ensure that this will happen,” he said.

Thammasart University’s law lecturer Dr. Parinya Devanaruemitrakul also pointed out that educating the public on the importance of the media’s independence is also vital to the task of reforming and defending the media sector. “Besides the fact that legal mechanisms to guarantee the media’s independence are necessary, the public needs to be informed as to how the media can be accessed and improved, so that they can support the media when abuses occurs.”

“Interference with the media is only evident to the public when the reporters are attacked or the newspapers are closed, not when there are sudden withdrawals of advertisements from the newspapers that are critical of government,” he added.

Meanwhile, Dr. Uajit Virojtrairatt, Chairman of Civic Media Development Institute, said some moves to implement the experimental community radio project of the Public Relation Department (PRD)–a major holder of the country’s public broadcast frequencies–have actually undermined efforts to boost community radio in Thailand.

Uajit said the PRD’s recent policy allowing community radio stations to earn income from advertising ran counter to the original concept of community-based stations and programs that operate as non-profit and community-oriented entities.

She said, the regulation has merely triggered a rush for opportunists to enter the sector, and resulted in airwaves choking with content that do not necessarily benefit the communities.

For more information, please contact Kulachada Chaipipat at seapa@seapabkk.org or call 66 2 243 5579.

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