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Thai media in trouble

The government should be very wary of repeating the media interference of the Thaksin era

Published on February 16, 2008

Whenever there is a change of government in Thailand, the person assigned to take care of the media, including state-owned media, often says that he will establish a "new media order". It is as if the government wants to treat the media like a lifeless entity that can be rearranged at any time - like a row of dominoes. Quite often this eagerness to establish "order" simply means interference with media freedom. So, when Prime Minister's Office Minister Jakrapob Penkair indicated that he intended to settle old scores, it caused an outcry within the media community over his perceived interference. The first victim was Dr Chirmsak Pinthong and his "Viewpoints" radio programme. There will be more to follow, especially in the months to come when numerous media contracts are up for renewal.

The young minister should have a better idea of how to treat the media. At one time he touted himself as the ultimate press freedom fighter. After that he changed sides and colour. Now that he's in a position of power, the first thing he wants to do is to impose the media values that he sees fit.

But the Thai media are fine as long as they are left alone without any government meddling. And it should remain that way - especially on the part of a government that has been elected freely and democratically. Before 2001, the Thai media used to be rated as one of the world's freest. Now, Thailand ranks very low on various international ratings for media freedom.

The modern history of Thailand has shown that any government attempt to control the media will fail because the public - despite complaints of low media quality - still wants to see a free and independent media that can serve as its eyes and ears. The people want a media that will be a watchdog, looking after their interests and serving the common good. Unfortunately, since the economic crisis of 1997, the Thai media has gradually lost its clout, falling victim to economic imperatives and survival.

When Thaksin was in power, from 2001-2006, the most blatant but sophisticated media control took place. He knew how the Thai media worked, its strengths and weaknesses. The billionaire prime minister easily exploited the situation, pitting one media outlet against another. Often he used economic incentives as bait, with media outlets competing for advertising packages and subsequently agreeing to remain politically silent.

Media interference also came through market mechanisms. Most of the major Thai media establishments are traded on the stock market. As such, they are vulnerable to hostile takeovers. Columnists from vernacular newspapers received monthly payments for speaking up in support of Thaksin and his cronies. At one time Thaksin even challenged the media with a question: "Who elected the media?"

Apparently the new government is using the same strategies to further dominate the remaining media space. Prime Minister Samak knows the value of electronic media and its accessibility for the rural masses. His weekly TV and radio programmes on state-owned stations are unique in this region. The content of these programmes is just propaganda in nature. His plain-talking style seems popular with some folk, and he hopes to sway them towards his government's agenda.

Last week, on both radio and TV, Samak wanted to show that he was a jack of all trades, commenting on almost everything under the sun. That helps to explain why he wants to set up a new "independent" TV station that will undoubtedly become a political and media tool for his government and Thaksin's cronies.

The previous government learned a hard lesson about too much meddling with state-owned TV. It would be best for both Samak and Jakrapob to stay away from the media. Both already have their media pet projects. Jakrapob's PTV will receive a boost in the coming days to rival ASTV, operated by Sondhi Limthongkul.

Thai media freedom has suffered in the past seven years because Thai leaders do not respect media scrutiny and independence. The future path should be clear of interference - because this government's legacy will depend to a great extent on its tolerance of a free media.

The Nation

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