Monday, April 22, 2024

Long-overdue media reform returns to the spotlight

Date:

The scandals at Channel 5 and Channel 11 that have dominated media headlines for the past week are just a tip of an iceberg of underlying problems impeding long-delayed broadcast media reform, but the scandals are not without a positive spin-off. At the very least, they have put the issue of media reform back under the spotlight and driven home thThe scandals at Channel 5 and Channel 11 that have dominated media headlines for the past week are just a tip of an iceberg of underlying problems impeding long-delayed broadcast media reform, but the scandals are not without a positive spin-off.

 

At the very least, they have put the issue of media reform back under the spotlight and driven home the need for liberalisation of the airwaves, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a group of state agencies, as they are today.

 

How the Thaksin government will intervene in the controversies at Channel 5 and Channel 11 will determine the future course of media reform. The crux of the issue at the two stations is much larger than just whether Channel 11 will be allowed to technically split its frequencies, or if there is anything shady about the process of Channel 5 being listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand.

 

The two TV stations are part of a much bigger media empire, the main players of which are various government agencies and state enterprises. Channel 5 and Channel 11 are certainly not the only two that are trying to protect their own interests by finding ways to circumvent reform.

 

Amid the scandals, another state agency is quietly moving ahead with plans to beat reform. The Mass Communication Organisation of Thailand (MCOT), which owns Channel 9 as well as 62 radio frequencies, has confirmed it will list on the stock market by the end of the year, claiming it is the only way to raise funds and improve efficiency.

 

MCOT, the Royal Thai Army and the Public Relations Department are the country’s three biggest players in the broadcast industry. Together they form a major part of a decades-long monopoly, owning more than two-thirds of the airwaves nationwide. The writing on the wall was obvious to them from the day broadcast media reform took a first step with the introduction of Article 40 of the 1997 Constitution which describes the airwaves as “public assets”.

 

The article was essentially designed to end a state monopoly of the broadcast business and create a level playing field so that all the airwaves are used for the benefit of the public under the supervision of an independent regulator – the National Broadcast Commission (NBC). But political and bureaucratic foot-dragging has put the reform in limbo.

 

Today, we have neither an NBC, nor a broadcast business law to serve as a legal framework for media reform.

 

It’s rather obvious that major stakeholders in the broadcast business are exploiting this interregnum to build up defence mechanisms that they hope will make them safe from the NBC. Of course, none of them would publicly admit to having such designs, but their strategies suggest otherwise.

 

Listing Channel 5 or Channel 9 on the stock market will certainly make things complicated for the NBC when it does finally come into being. And who knows how many more state agencies will follow suit to protect their turf?

 

There is a big question mark as to whether the NBC will have the authority to wrest back frequencies from state enterprises that turn into public companies. Even if it does, just imagine the difficulties it might face trying to regulate airwaves that are in semi-private hands.

 

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is only scratching at the surface by ordering a probe into the scandal at Channel 5 and putting a brake on new frequencies at Channel 11. The scandals at the two stations certainly smack of favouritism and even possible corruption but more essentially they reflect the mentality of their management.

 

Their hierarchies have somehow come to believe that it’s within their rights to preserve their interests by building walls to ward off future intervention by the NBC. The attitude is encouraged by Prime Minister Thaksin’s privatisation policy and his suggestion that listing state agencies that own broadcast frequencies on the stock market has nothing to do with media reform.

 

As long as the Thaksin government remains ambiguous about media reform, one can expect more confusion to emerge, with more state agencies trying to come up with clever ideas to stay out of the NBC’s reach. Thaksin himself seems deaf to suggestions that his government order all state agencies owning frequencies to cease any attempt that would defy the reform process.

 

But there is one legitimate question that deserves to be asked in this age of political reform – is there any justification for agencies like the army, the Public Relations Department and MCOT to continue to monopolise the airwaves?

 

These agencies were originally given the airwaves at a time when security and state propaganda were the order of the day. Now that the country no longer faces any security threats and state propaganda is as obsolete as the communist doctrines, the need for them to possess as many as two-thirds of the country’s airwaves is no longer justified.

 

And listing them on the stock market will not make them any less monopolistic. It will only transfer the monopoly into the hands of a few rich media entrepreneurs with the right political connections.
e need for liberalisation of the airwaves, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a group of state agencies, as they are today. How the Thaksin government will intervene in the controversies at Channel 5 and Channel 11 will determine the future course of media reform. The crux of the issue at the two stations is much larger than just whether Channel 11 will be allowed to technically split its frequencies, or if there is anything shady about the process of Channel 5 being listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand. The two TV stations are part of a much bigger media empire, the main players of which are various government agencies and state enterprises. Channel 5 and Channel 11 are certainly not the only two that are trying to protect their own interests by finding ways to circumvent reform. Amid the scandals, another state agency is quietly moving ahead with plans to beat reform. The Mass Communication Organisation of Thailand (MCOT), which owns Channel 9 as well as 62 radio frequencies, has confirmed it will list on the stock market by the end of the year, claiming it is the only way to raise funds and improve efficiency. MCOT, the Royal Thai Army and the Public Relations Department are the country’s three biggest players in the broadcast industry. Together they form a major part of a decades-long monopoly, owning more than two-thirds of the airwaves nationwide. The writing on the wall was obvious to them from the day broadcast media reform took a first step with the introduction of Article 40 of the 1997 Constitution which describes the airwaves as “public assets”. The article was essentially designed to end a state monopoly of the broadcast business and create a level playing field so that all the airwaves are used for the benefit of the public under the supervision of an independent regulator – the National Broadcast Commission (NBC). But political and bureaucratic foot-dragging has put the reform in limbo. Today, we have neither an NBC, nor a broadcast business law to serve as a legal framework for media reform. It’s rather obvious that major stakeholders in the broadcast business are exploiting this interregnum to build up defence mechanisms that they hope will make them safe from the NBC. Of course, none of them would publicly admit to having such designs, but their strategies suggest otherwise. Listing Channel 5 or Channel 9 on the stock market will certainly make things complicated for the NBC when it does finally come into being. And who knows how many more state agencies will follow suit to protect their turf? There is a big question mark as to whether the NBC will have the authority to wrest back frequencies from state enterprises that turn into public companies. Even if it does, just imagine the difficulties it might face trying to regulate airwaves that are in semi-private hands. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is only scratching at the surface by ordering a probe into the scandal at Channel 5 and putting a brake on new frequencies at Channel 11. The scandals at the two stations certainly smack of favouritism and even possible corruption but more essentially they reflect the mentality of their management. Their hierarchies have somehow come to believe that it’s within their rights to preserve their interests by building walls to ward off future intervention by the NBC. The attitude is encouraged by Prime Minister Thaksin’s privatisation policy and his suggestion that listing state agencies that own broadcast frequencies on the stock market has nothing to do with media reform. As long as the Thaksin government remains ambiguous about media reform, one can expect more confusion to emerge, with more state agencies trying to come up with clever ideas to stay out of the NBC’s reach. Thaksin himself seems deaf to suggestions that his government order all state agencies owning frequencies to cease any attempt that would defy the reform process. But there is one legitimate question that deserves to be asked in this age of political reform – is there any justification for agencies like the army, the Public Relations Department and MCOT to continue to monopolise the airwaves? These agencies were originally given the airwaves at a time when security and state propaganda were the order of the day. Now that the country no longer faces any security threats and state propaganda is as obsolete as the communist doctrines, the need for them to possess as many as two-thirds of the country’s airwaves is no longer justified. And listing them on the stock market will not make them any less monopolistic. It will only transfer the monopoly into the hands of a few rich media entrepreneurs with the right political connections.

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