Thailand: The Television Business, Democracy and The Army


Glen Lewis

Recent controversy over 20th Century Fox's new film 'The Beach' in Krabi's Phi Phi national park has rekindled environmental protests about incursions on the national estate. A more significant media issue, however, is the negotiation of new contracts for Channels 7 and iTV.

During the Anand ministry a public commitment was made to introduce new non-government television channels. This was because of biased pro-government coverage of the street violence during the 'Black May' events in 1991. Finally, in 1996 Siam Infotainment, a company backed by the Siam Commercial Bank, the Crown Property Bureau, and the Nation Media Group, set up iTV as Bangkok's sixth free-to-air channel.

Since then iTV has been important in adopting a more investigative style of news and current affairs. iTV hidden cameras, for instance, exposed corrupt traffic police activities. iTV's hard-hitting approach to political reporting has had some salutary influence on the other channels.

Yet in recent months the conditions of renewal of iTV's licence and that of the Army-controlled Channel 7 have been controversial. There are three background factors here. First, the effect of the financial crisis on the media already has caused retrenchments and newspaper closures. Second, a new broadcasting bill will shortly appoint an independent media regulator for both radio and television. Third, there is the issue of the role of the Army in politics. It has taken a back seat in Thai politics since 1992, compared to its counterparts in Indonesia or Myanmar, but the Army still controls Channels 5 and 7 and 130 of some 300 radio stations.

Although the downturn damaged television-advertising revenues much less than other media, it still has created problems for iTV in meeting the initial royalty payment for its 30-year licence. This led to iTV requests for a deferral of payment of the Bt300 million due, and an unusually savage attack against iTV by Thailand's largest circulation paper Thai Rath. The paper claimed that the Prime Minister Office's boss Supatra Masdit, iTV and the Democrats were colluding to waive payments.

The Army's Channel 7 appeared to have an easier time in extending its own contract. Bangkok Television and Radio, the company that leases Channel 7 from the Army, was granted a twenty-five year extension in May. This apparently evades the controls that an independent media regulator may introduce under Clause 40 of the new Constitution. It also returns less than iTV's lease payments though Channel 7 is the top-ranking national channel.

The Channel 7 issue has placed Prime Minister Chuan in a difficult position. As Defence Minister as well as Prime Minister, he must accept responsibility for the decision made originally by General Chetta Thanajaro. Chuan asked Chetta's successor, General Surayud Chulanont, to review the legalities of the extension.

Most recently, General Pang, the supervisor of the Army's broadcasting business, has denied favouritism to Bangkok Television. He explains the decision in terms of the Army's need to facilitate future technical development and for its media companies to become more commercially oriented.

While some disquiet about the comparative treatment of iTV and Channel 7 remains, the Army's media interests are becoming more orthodoxly commercial. For instance, its TV Channel 5 now operates Global Network television, broadcasting via the THAICOM-3 satellite to the US, Europe and Australia. Even here, though, there have been complaints of a special deal done between the Army and the Shinawatra group as the satellite provider.

WATCHPOINT: Will the Army remain on the side of continuing democratic reforms in Thailand?


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