Where have the media reformers gone?

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Members of the press hold signs opposing a media bill ahead of the National Reform Steering Assembly debate as they submit a petition to NRSA Deputy Chairman Alongkorn Ponlaboot, calling for the bill to be dropped, in this photo from 2017. Thanarak Khunton

After two decades marked by two military coups in 2006 and 2014, Thailand is now supposed to be a “reformed” country. While all sorts of reforms were promised with every military coup – from political parties, parliament and the constitution to the bureaucracy, army and police – none took place. In fact, promised reforms have gone in the opposite direction in the past. Nowhere is this backlash and restoration of former power and interests more evident than in Thailand’s media industry.

A cursory glance at Thai politics since the 2014 coup, which came on top of its 2006 predecessor, reveals political decadence and the deterioration of all major institutions. Political parties are banal, designed to serve the powers that be. The Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) is an example of this, as a party of convenience and vested interests that was created to support General Prayut Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister, in conjunction with the Senate appointed by the Coup d’Etat. The only party that dared to call for and act on political and economic reforms, namely the Party of the Future, was duly dissolved by the Constitutional Court. Its successor, the Move Forward Party (MFP), is also at risk of disbanding as it continues to call for reforms to the outdated institutions that govern this country.

Instead of undergoing institutional reforms, the armed forces and police have become more entrenched in their abusive and irresponsible ways, while bureaucracy steers the Thai ship of state at a glacial pace characterized by nepotism, clientelism and a lack of ideas to move the country forward. But under the radar and less visible is the media.

Twenty years ago, a media reform movement flourished. Civil society media reformers, including academics and journalists, stood up to a newly elected politician, a brash and flamboyant leader of a new party called Thai Rak Thai who galloped around town like an arrogant cowboy as if he could do anything and knew more than anyone. . His name was Thaksin Shinawatra.

He promised to kick out the International Monetary Fund (IMF), restore Thai pride, push the economy forward with cluster development projects and niche industries, impose “social order”, make making Thailand a regional hub, eradicating poverty, etc. He was full of himself, brimming with ideas, surrounded by acolytes and business associates, former classmates in the police and the army. A few weeks after taking power in 2001, he began to exert influence on all the major institutions mentioned above, including the media.

Thaksin’s family business Shin Corp had bought iTV, an independent local television station born out of the military coup and political crisis of 1991-92. The reform spirit of the 1990s called for a new television channel beyond the control of the state apparatus and more directly of the military. True, the Thai military owns most terrestrial television stations, either operating them directly or leasing them to private operators for profit and profit. The same goes for radios. Of 506 radio frequencies, the armed forces and the police own almost half, the rest being under the control of state agencies. These television and radio stations were (and are) operated and rented out for a cushy income like cash cows.

During Thaksin’s time, media professionals, civil society activists and academics fought back as state agencies used television and radio stations in support of government policies and posture. A major “Media System Reform Project” was launched in 2003, led by a local research institute and included a team of reform-minded academics and journalists who wanted to liberalize the media landscape. The aim was to make the electronic media independent and at the service of society, rather than being supervised by state agencies in favor of the government in place.

When Thaksin’s cousin became army chief in 2003 and the media increasingly became mouthpieces for the government, the media reform bill grew louder, as if they were on the safe side of history, fighting an authoritarian, civilian-led and abusive regime. Ultimately, the media reformers under this project helped undermine the legitimacy of the Thaksin government and expose its wrongdoings. Project participants later joined the anti-Thaksin movement that led to the September 2006 coup. Shin Corp-owned iTV was converted into a public broadcasting service (PBS) in the process.

Yet the state of the media industry in Thailand has remained the same, still owned and operated by the same armed forces and state agencies. TV and radio channels are still broadcasting pro-government news in support of the ruling royalist-military regime, but no one takes them to task. In Thaksin’s time, reformers who resisted him may have come under increased scrutiny from the taxman, while noisy newspapers could see expensive advertisements from Thaksin-linked companies taken down. Today, reformers are being knocked on the door by security guards and slapped with charges and summonses under repressive censorship laws.

Not only are these media reformers untraceable, but some have joined the other side, such as in the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, a Senate-approved body. When you apply for an important public sector position in Thailand these days, the search committee doesn’t just look at your merits and qualifications; they watch to see who you are, if you’ll rock the boat, and how far you get along with their program.

The implication is that the longer the military is in power, the more Thailand will suffer. Media reformers were so defiant against Thaksin because they could get away with it. The question now is whether to be co-opted and streamlined for upward career mobility, or left out with little in return.

As the army’s tentacles spread and spread to more places in Thai politics, economy and bureaucracy, the longer-term structural damage is becoming evident. For example, the state-owned enterprise sector has seen more top brass join the boards of directors than ever before. It will take a long time to repair this damage, and only a civilian-led government can do the job.

For media reformers who have seen the political vicissitudes of the past two decades, the struggle was little more than a power struggle from the start. Whether it was the good guys versus the bad guys was a concocted myth.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, he obtained a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics with a thesis award in 2002. Recognized for his excellence in opinion writing by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his opinions and articles have been widely published by local and international media.

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