Published on January 16, 2008
The interim Surayud government has chosen the drastic route of transforming Thailand Independent Television (TITV), originally known as iTV, into the country's first public television station - an entity that it hopes will be free from business influence and political interference. In a way, the outgoing government had no other option but to do what needed to be done to ensure that the new station made a clean break from its chequered past. The government's Public Relations Department, tasked with overseeing the transition, terminated the employment contracts of more than 800 TITV journalists and members of its support staff and set up a five-member provisional board of directors to draw up the new corporate identity and business objectives of the new television station.
It is estimated that only half of the current number of employees will be re-hired, and those that are will have to agree to the new, public service-oriented mode of operations. In addition there may be considerable pay cuts. According to the government, these measures are necessary as many of TITV journalists and staffers are known to be strongly opposed to the proposed changes - if not also suspected of being closely associated with the deposed Thaksin administration. Those journalists and employees who are to be let go will be compensated under the labour laws.
The original iTV, which was later turned into TITV, was created in the aftermath of the May 1992 bloodbath, with the express purpose of providing the Thai public with accurate, truthful and timely news and current affairs programmes based on strict journalistic objectivity and professional media ethics. During the May 1992 bloody crackdown on unarmed democracy protesters by the then-Suchinda administration, all TV stations under government control failed to report the truth that scores of people were being gunned down by the security forces. The public outrage that led to the resignation of Suchinda Kraprayoon as prime minister came only after people learned of the massacre from international news agencies.
ITV, which began operating in the mid-1990s, was designed as a free TV channel that wouldn't be used as a tool of the powers that be. Its considerable "independence" was hailed by the public as the best thing that had ever happened in the Thai broadcast media, but it was a short-lived affair. Before he came to power in 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra took over the financially ailing station, turning it into his personal propaganda tool. Under his administration, ITV's management arbitrarily changed the concession terms of the station to lessen its financial burden and to increase the amount of entertainment content, contrary to the original plan.
The new provisional board - including a journalist, media expert, social worker and political activist - will exercise its power under the Public Broadcasting Act. It will be relatively free from government control to create a new station devoted to public service and to be funded by special taxes and donations. It would be an understatement to say that it has a tall order to meet.
Public broadcasting is part of a broader media reform advocated by a coalition of media professionals, academics and members of civil society who believe that genuine political reform is not possible without breaking the state monopoly on the broadcast industry.
There has been some confusion over what public television actually is. The planned public station - subsidised but not controlled by the government - will aim to offer quality programming that helps to educate people, as opposed to market-driven commercial TV networks that must cater to popular taste, rely on advertisers for survival and compete against rival networks to stay afloat. To shield the public station from the dictate of viewer ratings and advertising, it will be commercial-free.
For a public TV station to succeed, the real power to control the quality of programming must be placed in the hands of the viewers. An audience council must be established with members appointed from professional groups representing a wide cross-section of society, not only to make sure the station delivers the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people but also to raise moral and aesthetic standards. The biggest challenge is how to come up with high-minded programming that is not boring to the majority of viewers.