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.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.
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:
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, 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.’’