Launch of Thai public broadcaster draws concern

Launch of Thai public broadcaster draws concern

 New York, January 22, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the establishment of the Thai Public Broadcasting Corporation (TPBS), but it is concerned that the military-appointed government closed Thailand’s only independent television station ahead of the move.

Thai media have closely tracked the evolution of TPBS after the government paved the way for the new station on January 15 with the formal dissolution of iTV, previously the country’s only privately run television station. Two days later, an administrative court upheld the legality of the caretaker government’s action. A five-member government-appointed interim committee has been overseeing the preparations to launch TPBS. The station is scheduled to assume iTV’s frequency and assets and begin commercial-free broadcasts on February 1.

“While we welcome Thailand’s move to break the state’s and military’s monopoly over the national airwaves, our optimism remains guarded due to the strong-arm tactics that were deployed to dissolve iTV and replace it with TPBS,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Thailand did not have to silence its only independent television broadcaster in order to establish a public broadcasting corporation.”

CPJ and Thai media reported that Thailand’s military government seized control of iTV in March 2007 after the broadcaster declined to pay 100 billion baht (US$2.8 billion) worth of fines and interest payments. The costs were related to government charges that the station had not honored the terms of its operating concession with the Prime Minister’s office.

At the time, iTV was majority owned by the Shin Corp., the communications conglomerate now held by Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and originally established by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted in a September 2006 military coup and now lives in exile.

The military government allowed the station to continue its regular programming under the control of the state-run Public Relations Department and with the new name, Thailand Independent Television (TITV). Some TITV employees complained of government interference when a senior news editor known to favor Thaksin was removed in the run-up to the December 23 general elections, according to local press reports.

Thailand’s military-drafted constitution, which was approved in a national referendum last August and replaced the progressive 1997 charter, includes new provisions that promote public broadcasting. Government officials have publicly said that the new station will be modeled after the independent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).  

While some media watchers cheered the government’s appointment of long-time journalist and media reform advocate Thepchai Yong as the new station’s acting director, others expressed their concerns that TPBS’s editorial independence could in future be compromised due to the station’s reliance on government-collected excise tax revenues for its finances.