Thailand’s people power gets a boost from satellite TV

Street protests in Bangkok - image from DayLife

Street protests in Bangkok - image from DayLife

Thailand, which had built up a reputation as a relatively stable country, has been under siege for much of this year. Confrontations between the coalition government, elected in December 2007, and the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have affected civil administration, law enforcement and economy, especially tourism.

On 10 September 2008, Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej was forced to step down when a court found him guilty of accepting money from a TV station to host a popular cooking show. Bizarre as this reason was for his ouster, it has only added to the confusion that currently dominates Thai life.

Although I have been visiting Thailand regularly for the past 20 years, I don’t claim to understand the murky world of Thai politics. But until recently, Thais had somehow managed to keep their politics and business separate, allowing the latter to continue largely unaffected.

Pro-democracy struggles are not new to Thai people. But this time around, there is a new player involved: Asia Satellite Television (ASTV) a relatively new entrant into Thailand’s TV world which is dominated by commercial TV stations that offer a staple of light talk shows, soap operas and gossip programmes.

ASTV’s programmes, since May 2008, has consisted of speeches beamed from a stage set up at the site of a Bangkok protest rally, led by the PAD.

In early September 2008, around 200 PAD supporters banded together to guard the ASTV station and Manager newspaper offices on Phra Athit road amid rumours Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was going to take the cable TV channel off the air.

In an interesting news analysis filed from Bangkok, Inter Press Service (IPS) noted on 5 September: “ASTV makes little effort to hide its political mission as the principle broadcaster of the PAD. After all, its founder, Sondhi Limthongkul, a fiery speaker, is one of the PAD’s leaders. His sustained attacks on the government and Thai democracy — that the prevailing elections system does not work, and the country needs a largely appointed parliament — have resonated with the thousands drawn to the PAD rallies after first hearing them on ASTV.”

Much of the PAD’s mass mobilisation has been possible due to ASTV’s reach, which is currently estimated at 20 million viewers. ‘’Our audience has doubled since 2006, when we had 10 million viewers, because we present the political side of the news that is not available on national TV,” the article quoted Chadaporn Lin, managing editor of the station’s English-language channel, as saying.

The Manager owns ASTV

The Manager owns ASTV

Viewers who cannot access the station through a satellite dish or a provincial cable company turn to the website of ‘Manager,’ the newspaper produced by ASTV’s parent company. The site has seen the number of regular visitors rise and is now placed third among the top 10 Thai-language websites.

Read the full IPS article: THAILAND: Satellite TV Boosts Anti-Gov’t Protests By Marwaan Macan-Markar

To make sense of what’s going on, I turned to Pipope Panitchpakdi, a Thai friend who has worked in the broadcast media industry for many years:

Pipope Panitchpakdi, independent Thai journalist

Pipope Panitchpakdi, independent Thai journalist

He says: “It’s just too bad that the ideology behind the ASTV movement is identified by many as right-winged and nationalistic. For me, the movement itself is quite progressive in its post-modernistic use of everything that works to topple the existing government. In a way, it’s going back to the muckraking days of partisan journalism, which may be in need when mainstream media are no longer functioning during Thaksin/Samuk’s administration (with his equally keen media strategist team).”

Pipope adds: “Few mentioned that ASTV is self sponsoring through viewers’ subscriptions. That’s, to me, says a lot about the station. In my opinion what is unacceptable is when NBT (National Broadcasting Television) starts to give air time to government politician to bash the ASTV and to report heavily distorted news on the anti-government movement. They said it is the counter measure to what the ASTV is doing.”

He continues: “NBT, which is a free to air TV, funded by tax money and has a nation wide coverage, now becomes the state propaganda in the true sense of the word and by being such, there is no telling what kind of political fervor the NBT can stir.”

The argument of using NBT to project government view is a familiar one in other fragile or immature democracies across Asia. To understand it, we need to recall how rapidly broadcasting has changed in the past two decades.

In 1990, most Asian viewers had access to an average of 2.4 TV channels, all of them state owned. This has changed dramatically — first with the advent of satellite television over Asia in 1991, and then through the gradual (albeit partial) broadcast liberalisation during the 1990s. Asian audiences, at last freed from the unimaginative, propaganda-laden state channels, exercised their new-found choice and quickly migrated to privately owned, commercially operated channels. Soon, state owned TVs and radios found themselves with ever-shrinking audiences and declining revenue. For the past decade, most have survived only because governments infused them with massive amounts of tax payer money. Their public service remit is long forgotten.

In recent years, some governments have taken the view that since a growing number of private channels provide an outlet to political opposition and other dissenting views, the state channels are justified in peddling the ruling party (or ruling military junta) view – often exclusively. This convenient argument overlooks the fact that Pipope points out: state channels are funded mostly or wholly by tax payer money (as many lack the entrepreneurial skill to compete in a market environment). They have a moral and legal obligation to serve the public interest — and that does not coincide with the ruling party’s or junta’s self interest.

There are some who accuse ASTV of Thailand, and its equivalents such as courageous Geo TV of Pakistan (which stood up to the once mighty, now fallen general Musharaf), of being partisan. Perhaps they are, and in ASTV’s case it unashamedly and openly is. But in my view, they offer a much-needed counter balance to the disgusting excesses of state TV that prostitute the airwaves.

Supinya Klangnarong

Supinya Klangnarong

Supinya Klangnarong, deputy head of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), an independent local group lobbying for media rights, told IPS: “ASTV is offering knowledge and political information and new ideas that have never been seen on Thai TV. They have opened a new space for TV. There is 100 percent media freedom. You can say anything against the elected government and get away.’’

But she warned that while such a media agenda has tapped into an older audience that has felt left out by the dominant trends on the existing commercial stations, where youth is the focus, it is also creating a following that could become increasingly intolerant. “They are creating a culture of hate by the one-sided opinions being broadcast. They are promoting very conservative and very nationalistic ideas.’’

She added: “And if it attracts more people, ASTV may take over the role that has always been played by Thai newspapers of setting the political agenda for the country. That will be a win for those who say that Thailand has become too liberal, open and globalised… like my mother’s generation.’’

PAD protests hold Thai capital under siege - image from DayLife

PAD protests hold Thai capital under siege - image from DayLife

Thailand’s TV chef PM ousted: Is this how to serve democracy?

Elected political leaders are driven out of office by various factors – ranging from military coup de’tat and popular revolt to corruption or sex scandals. But it’s not common for a head of government to lose his job for appearing on television.

But that’s just what happened on 9 September 2008 to Thailand’s prime minister…and the headline writers worldwide couldn’t resist every imaginable cooking cliche at his expense: “Cooking show lands Thai PM in hot water”, “Thai PM grilled over cooking show”, “Thai PM in a soup”, etc.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was forced from office along with his Cabinet after Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that he had broken a conflict-of-interest law by hosting TV cooking shows while in office.

Samak Sundaravej has hosted Tasting and Complaining cooking show for years on Thai TV

Samak Sundaravej has hosted "Tasting and Complaining" cooking show for years on Thai TV

The court judgment, broadcast live on television and radio, was greeted with loud cheers and claps from Samak’s opponents who have occupied his office compound since Aug. 26 to demand his resignation. Some protesters wept with emotion.

The 73-year-old Samak, who has cooked for visiting leaders, hosted a popular television cooking show — “Tasting and Complaining” — for seven years before becoming prime minister in early 2008 after his his People Power Party (PPP) and five others won a general election. He returned Thailand to civilian rule after the army had captured power in September 2006, ousting the former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Some say this is the first time a professional chef has become prime minister anywhere. Samak had made several TV appearances after taking office, which the court held was breaking a constitutional prohibition on private employment while in office.

Tasting and Complaining on air

To serve the Kingdom of Thailand...medium rare?

The defiant PPP, whose government is facing stiff opposition by supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), initially tried to renominate Samak as PM. But they dropped the idea like a hot potato in just a couple of days. Samak also bowed out as leader of the PPP.

As of this writing, the ruling coalition is trying to find a political leader who can form a government. The street demonstrators, one of whose main demands was the resignation of PM Samak, are watching developments with a sharp eye.

In recent weeks Samak’s government, though duly elected, has been under siege from PAD which draws its strength from among city dwellers and the elite. Although I have been visiting Thailand for 20 years, I don’t claim to understand the murky world of Thai politics. But until recently, Thais had somehow managed to keep their politics and business separate, allowing the latter to continue largely unaffected.

In the end, Samak lost his job not for any substantive lapses of governance – his opponents had lined up a long list of these – but on a legal technicality.

Samaks TV show branding

Samak's TV show branding

Samak has been involved in Thai politics for over 30 years, and since the 1990s has been promoting the art of Thai cooking on both radio and television. He started cooking at the age of 7, and his popular cookbook Chimpai Bonpai (“Tasting, Complaining”) is now in it’s 9th edition. One innovative Samak recipe: he makes pork leg stew with coca-cola.

Surely, Samak is not the first or last politician to sustain a parallel second career on television – the most dominant mass medium in most parts of Asia. Serving and aspiring leaders across Asia have deals with popular television networks that help boost their image and help their approval ratings. And in immature democracies, state-owned TV networks are grossly abused by politicians of ruling parties for outright propaganda.

Samak’s mistake was not so much continuing his TV career, but getting paid for it while holding public office. He should have just stuck to the publicity value. After all, with Thai cuisine among the most popular in the world, he could have gone far combining his culinary talents with hosting TV shows. Instead, he cooked up an avoidable storm…

Here’s the bright side: if Samak leaves politics, he has a choice of at least two lucrative careers.

Celebrity Thai chefs, anyone?

Watch the ousted Thai PM cooking in this news report on ITN News (UK):

Would the Samak cooking saga make a good film? Find out what the Guardian’s film blogger thinks!