Reform or repression?
Early signs are that media reform – named as one of four government priorities for national reconciliation – may run counter to guarantees of media freedom unless mechanisms for independence are built in
Published: 11/07/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum
Since the lead-up to the suppression of red shirt protesters on May 19, the media – both local and international – have come under scrutiny and criticism as never before.
A STAR IS BORN: Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the spokesman for the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations, shows off an M79 grenade launcher at a news conference.
At the same time the government has accelerated attempts to get its own message across. This was particularly obvious in announcements from the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) at the height of the unrest, when CRES spokesman Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd became the heartthrob of countless females through his many appearances on the TV screen to update the situation. The successful branding of Col Sansern reflects the role of the media, especially the many state-owned outlets, in instilling images, ideas and beliefs, and in effect engaging in the manufacture of consent for the government’s actions. Indeed, even many of the terms the colonel used became popular catch phrases.
The suppression of the red shirt protesters resulted in 90 dead and more than 1,800 injured, but many television channels and newspapers opted to give priority to the story of Col Sansern. Thai PBS carried an interview with him only a day after the dispersal of the protesters.
The media’s attention has likewise been diverted from the coverage of many other important issues, including amendments agreed to by the Senate on May 30, to the draft bill on Frequency Allocation, Radio, Television, and the Telecommunication Regulatory Agency (FARTTRA), which sets up an independent agency to oversee the allocation of all frequencies. The bill was drafted in 2008 to replace an earlier “people’s” draft bill on frequency allocation.
THE OFFICIAL LINE: In May the government’s public relations department gave community radio stations these ‘scripts’ to read, urging red shirt protesters to go home.
The Senate amended two crucial components of FARTTRA. The first amendment allowed the addition of commissioners from the security sector and also allowed representatives from the security sector to take part in the committee selection process for the independent agency – the National Broadcasting and Communications Commission (NBCC), which will replace the present National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).
The second amendment stipulated that the security sector be allocated an “adequate” number of frequencies.
Suthep Wilailert of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR) expressed concern that the Senate amendments violate the principles of the draft people’s media reform bill and the constitution.
He said the Senate used the present conflict situation to justify giving the military the right to intervene in the legislative process and control the proposed independent media agency and the allocation of frequencies.
The CPMR has been campaigning for more than a decade to take frequencies back from the army and other state agencies for the public use. In the past the majority of the frequencies were concentrated in the hands of the army and associated organisations. The army still holds 201 radio frequencies and owns TV Channel 5; it also oversees the concession for TV Channel 7.
The CPMR, which believes it will not be possible for frequency allocation to be fair and independent in the future if army representatives are allowed on the NBCC, has called on members of Parliament to take another look at the draft bill and the proposed amendments. “We would like to call on all media to follow up on the issue as well,” Mr Suthep said, adding that the media should place priority on the interests of the people.
TAMING THE AIRWAVES
WAR ZONE: Reporters and photographers covering the protest in the Silom area. The recent unrest put the media in the crossfire both literally and figuratively. PHOTO: APICHIT JINAKUL
Wicha Oonoak of the Community Radio Federation discussed another major media freedom issue – the shadow of the CRES over community radio stations and the internet.
“This has been done to weaken democracy and political awareness. Community radio stations now must avoid discussing political issues. I was summoned before the CRES and asked not to discuss politics. They even gave us a script to read at our station,” said Mr Wicha.
The director of the CRES, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, has often maintained that the government has never tried to place restrictions on media coverage and freedom of expression. But the reality, said Pisit Sriprasartthong of the Citizen-net Network, is that more than 9,000 websites have been blocked by the CRES since the declaration of the emergency decree, and many remain blocked.
“There is no clear reason given for blocking them,” he said, adding that the online alternative media site Prachatai, which is very popular among intellectuals in the country, was blocked for many months.
Under the emergency law the CRES has authority to shut down any radio and television stations it considers to be a threat to national security.
The best information available is that 5,874 community radio stations have been allowed to renew their licences under the emergency decree, but renewal has been delayed in the case of 743 stations and 14 have had their licences revoked.
Many hosts at community radio stations which are still on the air say they are in a state of self-censorship and don’t discuss politics at all, as the CRES can send its people to raid any station it deems is violating the nebulous emergency law at any time. “We are now turning into tame people who dare not speak about anything, even if we are not red shirt supporters. We discuss general issues for a short period of time and then turn to popular music,” said the host of a community radio programme who asked not to be named, adding that the present situation is contrary to the intent of the broadcasting services allocation act.
“We know that we should not become propaganda machines but there is no other way that we can survive under the decree; we have no power and no say.
“The CRES has sent their men to crack down on many of our friends’ stations. They tore down all the signal poles and seized their equipment,” said the programme host.
His station has also been shut down, although no equipment was destroyed or seized. He said the CRES exercised its authority by different means.
“First, it accused us of operating without a licence, but we showed them that under the NBT [National Broadcasting Telecommunications Act] we were allowed to operate for 300 days. Then they raised another law, the BE 2498  Telecommunication-Radio Act. They can find any reason to suppress us,” said the host.
Another programme host at a community radio station in a province near Bangkok, who also asked not to be named, expressed his reasons for submitting to the CRES after his station was ransacked and shut down.
“I think they are showing mercy in only charging us with violating the BE 2498 law. They are kind enough not to charge us with terrorism,” said the man, who was once an outspoken advocate for freedom of expression. He then said he is not affiliated with the red group and admitted that deep down he does not agree with the CRES’ charge. He also cannot understand why his station was torn apart. He said that he and the other hosts did not discuss any political issues or anything that would harm national security, but only agricultural issues and the economy.
“We have to accept our fate. We live under an emergency decree, we have no say. If we say too much, we will be charged with more. Who will help us?” he asked.
Under the emergency law even the NBTC cannot exercise its mandate to oversee the airwaves. When Commissioner Pana Thongme-arkom was asked why many community radio stations had been shut down, his answer was that the country is under the emergency law. He added that the agency had only sent people to assist the CRES.
“The BE 2498 Telecommunication-Radio Act is among the 18 acts that are under the control of the emergency decree,” he said.
Many red shirts say they can’t understand why ASTV is still allowed to broadcast, given its obvious bias toward the yellow camp. Mr Pana responded that the station’s operation is protected by an Administrative Court ruling from Nov 14, 2008.
TOO MUCH POWER
In shutting down community radio stations, websites and the People’s TV Channel (PTV) the government makes it harder for the red shirt leaders to put their message out, but the downside is that it may actually be helping their cause in the long run. Ironically, a number of red shirt protesters claimed that the reason they joined the Bangkok rallies is that their lines of communication, especially PTV, were put out of operation by the government.
“We felt that it was unfair to prevent our right to know,” said a red shirt who is now back home in a Northeastern province.
Ms Jintana, who works at a private company, said she began to have sympathy for the red shirts when she learned that the CRES was screening their text messages. “I think the government is using too much of its power,” she said.
Many media professionals agree, and say Deputy PM Suthep’s claim that the CRES has never interfered with the media is unacceptable.
Thapanee Aiemsrichai, a member of a TV Channel 3 crew who covered the protests intensively, shared her experiences at a seminar held recently at Chulalongkorn University. She said that she has become more aware of the limitations on media since “we are asked to give co-operation to the government”.
She said she was unable to report everything that she learned, and only managed to get information out on some of the incidents she witnessed by sending Twitter messages to friends.
In some seminars since the May 19 crackdown the media has become the target of attacks.
Recently Chulalongkorn University issued a letter of apology to media personnel who were verbally abused by red shirt supporters after sharing their experiences at a seminar at the university.
Meanwhile, media organisations are becoming involved in the media reform plans which the Abhisit Vejjajiva government has named as one of four priorities for national reconciliation. Many media professionals see this as merely an attempt to buy time, but others have been co-operative and even helped organise meetings with the government.
Supinya Klangnarong of the CPMR said that the best path to media reform is to accelerate the selection process of the independent NBCC as stipulated by the 2007 constitution and let this organisation take the lead. As noted above, frequency allocation is presently under the NBTC. Ms Supinya said that when there is no independent regulatory body to determine the designation of frequencies and other important issues, these issues become more complicated.
Saying that the media cannot do its job properly under the emergency law, she added: “The government should not host the reform as it does not have the trust of all sectors.” She suggested that the NBCC should be in charge of public hearings and receive input from all sectors in the reform effort.
Wasan Paileeklee, the president of the Radio and Television Council, agreed that all sectors should be involved in the process of reform. He said: “If we want to achieve media reform, we need to look at both media organisation and content. The media should be able to send a high-quality, well-rounded and unbiased message.”