Thailand: Media Reform In The Year Of Electing Repeatedly

2000

Dr Glen Lewis

The year 2000 could be as politically important in Thailand as 1992, the year of the failed army coup, and 1997, which saw the financial crisis and the new Constitution.

Thailand had its first Senate elections in March under the new Constitution. There were many positive outcomes. The Senate was entirely elected for the first time. Candidates were prohibited from being members of political parties and even from campaigning. Of the eighteen senators elected for Bangkok, a majority of public interest reformers were successful.

The new Electoral Commission (EC) appointed to monitor electoral fraud was instrumental in achieving this result. It disqualified 78 of 200 national winners, including Interior Minister Sanans wife. In another startling election aftermath, the Counter Corruption Commission found Sanan guilty of fabricating a million-dollar loan. His subsequent resignation warranted coverage in the New York Times.

However, there are signs of public weariness with the reform process. The large number of disqualifications required many by-elections. The 72 per cent turnout for the March election was reduced to 40 per cent and there are still two major elections to come, for the Bangkok Governorship in July and the National Assembly in November.

Telecom magnate Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai-Rak-Party has now emerged as the strongest challenger to Chuan’s Democrats. Thaksin has persuaded Sudarat Keyuraphan, formerly of the Palang Dharma, to stand in the Bangkok Governor’s election, and has bought many defectors from other parties.

Thaksin also seems set to take over the only non-state owned television channel, Independent Television (ITV). Thaksin was criticised by the Bangkok Post, which commented that this was the anniversary month of the Black May 1992 conflict, when local TV and radio stations heavily censored their coverage. ITV was established in 1996 to run an independent news service, and so far it has done so.

Yet ITV’s main financier, the Siam Commercial Bank, has now done a deal with Thaksin that will give his Shin group at least 40 per cent of ITV. It would be most unfortunate, in a year when Thais need to get objective political news, if ITV comes under the influence of a company directed by the country’s biggest telecoms magnate, who could also be the next Thai Prime Minister.

New media regulatory agencies required by the 1997 Constitution for broadcasting and telecoms must be finalised by October this year. They will have a fait accompli to deal with if Thaksins takeover of ITV is successful.

WATCHPOINT: Will Thais tire of their current wave of reforms, and can the media act effectively in the public interest at a time of extreme political fluidity?

 

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