Friday, August 22, 2008

Who owns state media?


Who owns state media?

A local daily argues that the taxpayers who foot the bill should be in control of the airwaves


Who owns the state-controlled radio and television stations? The question will keep coming up as long as no authority gives a final verdict. The government says that state media should be a mouthpiece for the government, while opponents argue that it belongs to the people as these stations are established and operated using the taxpayers' money, noted a Thai Rath editorial.

Prime Minister Samak was piqued when the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) decided to set up a working committee to investigate the government TV Channel 11 (NBT) director for allowing the hosts of the programme Today's Truth to air what many feel is government propaganda attacking the opposition.

Mr Samak said that the programme - which is broadcast for 45 minutes, 6 days a week - was "good", as it never used crude words or belittled anyone. He questioned why anyone would petition the NCCC with a claim of bias. He then cited the example of ASTV, owned by Manager Media Group, which broadcasts 24 hours a day, often showing speakers for the Peoples's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) using crude words. Yet, said Mr Samak, no one is petitioning the NCCC to investigate this satellite TV channel.

The Thai Rath editorial said the PM's remarks could be misleading to the general public. In fact, the Public Relations Department has already asked the court to shut down the ASTV broadcast because it was operating without a licence. However, the Manager Media Group sought a temporary injunction from the court allowing it to continue broadcasting until the case is given a final judgement. The temporary protection to continue broadcasting is not the same as permission to continue attacking or libelling other people. The temporary injunction was granted in accord to the article 45 of the 2007 Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression.

ASTV is on the same footing as thousands of community radios that operate without a licence but keep broadcasting under the protection of Article 45.

The editorialist said if Mr Samak or anyone in the government deem they are being libelled by ASTV, they can launch a lawsuit in the criminal court.

The Thai Rath editorial noted further that ASTV is owned by a private company and was not set up using tax money. Even if someone petitions the NCCC to investigate the ASTV, the NCCC will not accept the case because it is beyond its jurisdiction, which is confined to only politicians and government officials.

Today's Truth is broadcast on the taypayer-funded government TV channel and is controlled by politicians and state officials. For this reason, the NCCC is empowered to investigate the complaint.

The present ownership controversy stems from two different schools of thought. One side cites the constitution, which says TV and radio frequencies are a national resource which must be used for the benefit of the people as a whole. This thinking reflects democracy in action.

The other side, which is in control of the executive branch, argues that since it is state media, it must serve as a mouthpiece for the government. This thinking reflects authoritarianism.

The Thai Rath editorial concluded that it was in the former camp, that since state media is paid for by the people it must be used for their benefit and kept free from political dominance. They must report news and opinions in an unbiased manner, allowing the opposition equal time.

Thaksin asks followers

to be patient

In a faxed message from London, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra said, "When the time is appropriate, I will reveal the truth to all. Today is not my day. May my supporters be patient for a while." Though the message was circumspect, it was clear that Thaksin will fight to the end and will not take his hands off politics, said Nongnuch Singhadecha, a Matichon writer.

Therefore, those who are predicting Thailand's politics will calm down may have been hasty.

Some may think that since his nearly 70 billion baht in assets has been frozen in this country, it will be hard for Mr Thaksin to finance further political activities. Nongnuch said this was a misconception, as was the assumption Mr Thaksin will be less influential now that he has sought political asylum in England.

Nongnuch noted that Thaksin has hired a famous overseas PR firm to regularly publicise news of his movements. This means that Thaksin still wants to communicate with his supporters in the former Thai Rak Thai party. Marketing principle states that a brand, no matter how good it is, will disappear from the public eye if it is not repeatedly advertised.

The same can be said about the "Thaksin brand." Nongnuch predicted there will be regular messages flowing from Mr Thaksin to his supporters in Thailand.

When he returned to Thailand earlier this year, he laid low to avoid negatively affecting his pending court cases. Now that he sees this as a lost cause (his wife was sentenced by the Criminal Court to three years in jail for tax avoidance), he would rather fight his cases extra-judicially by rallying his troops to put pressure on the law courts.

A Credit Suisse analyst said it would not be hard for Mr Thaksin to control or influence his political supporters while living in exile in London, as he did successfully after the coup in 2006. He was instrumental in rallying the dissolved Thai Rak Thai party to form the People Power party, which contested and won the general election in December 2007.

The analyst pointed out that if there were a House dissolution today, the PPP or a new political party under Thaksin's control would still win the general election. It might not be a landslide, but would be enough to make the party a core member of a coalition government.

Ms Nongnuch also discounted speculation that the PPP would disintegrate and form several new parties. As long as Thaksin still has money, the various factions in the PPP will rally together to extract financial and political rewards from the Big Boss.

As long as the "Thaksin brand" still sells well in the North and Northeast, every faction in the PPP will compete to use his good name to attract votes. Acting against Thaksin would almost guarantee defeat in the next general election.

Ms Nongnuch said she believed that Thaksin still has a lot of money stashed overseas. After all, even when his assets in Thailand were frozen in 2006, he still had enough money to buy Manchester City Football Club.

Ms Nongnuch then turned to comment on current Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who she said was outwardly courting both the military and the monarchy. She believed this was done to lessen the number of enemies that he has to face, as he has his hands full in dealing with the constant dissent from PPP members who may think he is not loyal enough in defending Mr Thaksin.

Ms Nongnuch further conjectured that Mr Samak plays the role of protector of the institution of the monarchy institution with the hope that the judicial branch would take notice in deliberating a case which could lead to the dissolution of the PPP, as well as a corruption case against him from when he was Bangkok governor. If either case goes against him he will be forced to leave his post.

Mr Samak is treading carefully, said Ms Nongnuch. He does not want to antagonise Mr Thaksin because he doesn't want to create enemies within the PPP. At the same time he must act in a way befitting the country's prime minister. For this reason, he allowed Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag to issue a statement defending the justice system in Thailand against the charge of interference levelled by Mr Thaksin when he sought political asylum in England.

As for Mr Thaksin, his fight still goes on. He will try to rally his troops to amend the constitution or enact legislation that will spare him jail time and recover his frozen assets in Thailand, concluded Matichon.

Dissolution can be less severe

When Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved, all its 111 executives were banned from politics for five years. That was the decision of the Constitution Tribunal during the time of the coup, noted a Thai Rath writer.

But the pending cases involving dissolution of political parties under the 2007 constitution may be different.

It is true that if a party executive is red carded by the Election Commission, and this is upheld in court, the involved party will face dissolution. However, it is possible that in this event the new Constitution Court might decide to dissolve the political party and punish the guilty executive but spare other party executives who are not deemed to be involved in electoral fraud.

In this case politicians would not worry so much because they can set up a new party. But if the Constitution Court follows the precedent set by the Constitution Tribunal and punishes all party executives, it may mean the end of some parties whose existence depends much more on the party leader and key executives, such as Chart Thai party, held together by Banharn Silpa-archa. This is why Mr Banharn agreed to seek a constitutional amendment to do away with the article that allows party dissolution.

The fate of Chart Thai, PPP, Puea Pandin and Democrat parties depends on the Constitution Court's interpretation of the law, and whether it wants to set a strong precedent to reform Thai politics and provide a deterrent against vote-buying in the future, concluded Thai Rath.

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