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Media And Politics In Thailand Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4744 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the 2002 World Press Freedom index where it had listed the position of the Press Freedom in different countries, it had ranked Thailand at the 66th position, above other Southeast Asian countries such as Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. However, in the 2006 World Press Freedom index, Thailand was placed on a staggering 122nd position, placed below Malaysia which was at the 92nd position. These two different positions may have been greatly influenced through the events that had happened in Thailand, especially in the year 2002 (Press Freedom Index 2002, 2002).

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In particular, the year between 2002 to 2006 were the years when Thailand was under the leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra as their 23rd Prime Minister. He was on the rise as he led his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party to a stunning victory in the 2001 general election, winning 248 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives, which gave him the mandate to lead the government. Notably also, Thaksin was the country’s first elected prime minister to serve a full four-year term, but had met the end of his leadership on Sept 19, 2006 although he had won the general election in 2006 for his second term. One of the reasons would be The People’s Alliance for Democracy that had led street protests clamouring for Thaksin’s ouster before the military staged a coup (Chetchotiros, 2010).

Therefore, this essay will focus on the relationship between the political power through the leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra and the media towards the declining of the country’s Press Freedom. Thailand would be an interesting case study because of how its position as a country with quite an above average freedom of press could actually decline so much with Thaksin in control. We could also focus on how the pattern of ownership and control of the media in Thailand to understand the deteriorating situation of freedom of expressions, taking the events in between the years especially in relation with the media as examples.

Thailand in the past had already rebelled for democracy in 1973. This then leads to the outcome where the press had overturned dictatorial controls and could boast of being perhaps the freest press in Asia through the “People’s Constitution” of 1997. However, ever since the election of the Thai Rak Thai government of Thaksin Shinawatra in February 2001, the trend had been reversed. The government has been accused of being authoritarian and dictatorial, with the media have been suppressed and manipulated. There were several reports, local and international, that have criticized the abuse of human rights. Bearing in mind that Thaksin himself is a tycoon businessman, the cause of the change may be associated with big businesses feeling threatened by both globalization and democratization, then seizing the state in order to manage both the two forces (Phongpaichit, 2004).

Free media is one of the pillars of democracy. Media spreads information and in that way keeps the public updated of important ongoing events. Independent media has a role of a watchdog too, making sure decisions are really made in a sufficient democratic way. Another important property of media is that it offers a public arena where two-way communication between citizens and officials can take place, for instance many newspapers around the world offer a possibility like that. To be able to fulfil this task media has to be independent and free but also accountable and ethical. Its position should be secured by law and should not be subject to political or otherwise opportunistic leadership /9/. As we will soon see it is utterly important that all of the above criteria are fulfilled to have a really trust-worthy medium.

In 1987 a new press bill was pending before the Thai National Assembly, this new legislation was to ensure a wide freedom of press in Thailand except in times of war. Even before 1987 it was agreed by most observers that the Thai press enjoyed fairly wide freedoms already during the older legislation. It is though to be noted that foreigners could not own any newspapers published in Thailand. Despite the freedom, editorial writers and journalists exercised continuous self-censorship. Even though there was no official censorship, the media was aware that there in fact were real government constraints, especially on coverage relating to the monarchy, government affairs, internal security matters, and Thailand’s international image. The existing statutes gave broad powers to the director general of the Thailand National Police Department, including the authority to revoke or suspend the license of an offending publication. The severity of penalties varied, depending on the political climate and the sensitivity of an issue /10/ In the 1980s all the major newspapers were privately owned and financed by selling the dailies and advertisements but the broadcast media was owned and controlled by the government and was thereby considered less credible (Warsta, 2004).

The media reform movement was in deep conflict with the government of the Thai Rak Thai party between 2001-2004. In 2005, the Thai Rak Thai party was re-elected and Thaksin Shinawatra took the helm once again as Prime Minister. During his first term the media, especially the printed press, has been politicized. Critical journalists were removed. Defiant newspapers were threatened, sued or bought up. This curtailing of press freedom and the government’s populist policies in economics, public health, social welfare, and education has aggravated elite and middle-class discontent from the outset of his second term. It was the prelude to the political crisis in 2006.

Thaksin and his telecommunications and media empire, Shin Corporation, is the dominant business and political power during his premiership in 2001-2006. He strategically acquired several telecommunications and media companies to enlarge his empire and hence, strengthen his political power. ITV television station is a case in point. Thaksin bought ITV station, previously owned by 10 shareholders, for his political end (Thepchai Yong, 2007). But controlling one commercial and two state television stations is insufficient to manipulate public opinion. The key instrument lies with the printed press made up of approximately a dozen daily newspapers. His tactic is to make them obedient by feeding large sum of advertising money and government public relations budget. However, if the press refuses to be orderly and journalists remain critical of the government they then face severe censorship. These include removal of journalists and the programs, defamation court cases involving charges worth several (Siriyuvasak, New Media for Civil Society and Political Censorship in Thailand, 2007).

Evidently, the Thaksin government rely less on media law but more on the Libel Law in the Criminal Code and Civil Code in its strategy to silence the media. On a day to day basis, the government prefers indirect censorship. It uses political and business power as its carrot and stick game before turning to the legal measure. This create serious problem for the press since they must learn how to deal with the extra-judicial methods of censorship. They blur the line of what could be published and what is off limit. Media law is somehow made meaningless. In a sense, they are weakened by the powerful authority of the government. But, of course, media law is the ultimate legal frame of reference that the government can always fall back on if it wishes to apply any direct censorship on the press (Siriyuvasak, New Media for Civil Society and Political Censorship in Thailand, 2007).

By comparison, Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai government, as a telecom and media tycoon, expend money to censor criticism and compromise the media. Ultimately he uses legal measure to threaten and punish the media so to create a climate of fear and to silence them. Near the end of his term, the media openly criticize the government. Hence, breaking away from the psyche of submissiveness. The CNS, on the contrary, must legitimize its power to rule and the media are essential instruments to prop up the regime. CNS applies direct censorship and control by using force but hide it from public eye. It creates a façade of ‘legalistic power’ instead of manifesting brute force. This is to show that the power of the coup is based on a legal state and lawful. For CNS the law together with the media are the main hegemonic apparatus to control subversive ideas and dissident voices. The mainstream media are drawn into this power process to help justify the coup legal set up. It is a web that would entangle and shut up the media nicely (Siriyuvasak, New Media for Civil Society and Political Censorship in Thailand, 2007).

After Sondhi Limthongkul-the founder of the newspaper Manager, and since late September 2005 on a self-styled mission to rescue the Thai nation from the clutches of “Thaksinocracy” by calling for a royally-appointed government-on 13 January 2006 led about 3,000 protestors from Lumpini Park to Government House, his star seemed on the wane. A few hundred of Sondhi’s followers had forced their way into the compound. Many observers thought that this action went too far. Moreover, it was lamented that Sondhi could not present any new revelations about Thaksin’s alleged myriad of serious wrongdoings. Reflecting on the possibility that politically-oriented non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could join Sondhi in what appeared to be a personally motivated retaliation campaign against the prime minister, Thirayuth Boonmee, a leading social critic, said that “activists needed more evidence of corruption to try to bring down the Thaksin government” (The Nation, 15 Jan. 2006). The Nation (20 Jan. 2006) proclaimed that “Mob politics is not the answer,” and spoke of the “self-styled Thaksin haterscum- reformists” with their “less-than-transparent cause” (Nelson, 2006).

In short, Thaksin’s political life seemed well on its way to being relieved of some burden. Even this burden should not have been taken as seriously as many observers and political actors did, thus increasing political tension. After all, in a democracy, one should not be too surprised that some people are unhappy with what the government does. Neither should the public demonstration of such dissent be perceived as something unusual in an open political order.[ii] In any case, Thaksin himself fanned the flames with the sale of his company, Shin Corporation, for 73 billion baht to the investment holding Temasek, after Shin’s share value had tremendously increased since 2001 during Thaksin’s time in office. With this transaction, important government concessions for the biggest mobile phone network and the satellite monopoly, a low-cost airline, a television channel, an Internet service provider, a marketing firm, and others in effect became the property of the government of Singapore, which is the owner of Temasek (Nelson, 2006).

The key factor is the absence of well-developed social, political and legal institutions to deal with corruption. Exposure of corruption is helpful only if there is a political will and there are social institutions to deal with it. Thailand is still very much in its infancy in this regard. While its media are relatively well advanced, other institutions lag behind, as does the political will to do anything about it. Thailand has exceptionally low levels of press readership. Furthermore the Thai press is not as free as commonly thought. Despite new constitutional protections of freedom of speech and of the press (Articles 39 and 41), the press is still hampered by strong libel laws. Whereas libel laws are commonly employed against the press, recent constitutional guarantees have not been tested in the courts, and there is increasing concern about the influence of strong political and commercial interests on media conduct and content (Duangkamol Chotana, 2001).

The simple link between corruption and press freedom – greater press freedom being associated with less corruption – applies only among rich countries. Among lower income countries the relationship is much more complex. In the absence of political will and adequate legal institutions, the press can have only a limited impact on corruption. The media are only the messengers. The greatest hope is that continued press freedom will help feed a desire for the deeper institutional changes necessary to create a transparent and less corrupt society.(Duangkamol Chotana, 2001)

After Thaksin became prime minister in 2000 the station was granted permission to reduce the amount of news coverage, and concerning the coverage it did offer, was accused of biased coverage towards Thaksin. In 2006, a court invalidated the earlier decision and fined the broadcaster heavily. In the wake of the September 2006 coup the government moved to close the station. In January 2008, it was replaced by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, legally protected from political and commercial influence via financial support from “sin taxes” from alcohol and tobacco duties of up to THB 2 billion (US$61 million). Programming centres on documentaries and children’s programs. While the station and its supporters say it is the country’s only independent broadcaster – the “BBC of Thailand” – its critics say this is not yet the case.204 Thailand has several non-terrestrial channels: in Thai TV, part owned by the Nation Multimedia Group, and ASTV, a 24-news channel owned by the Manager Media Group, owned by Sondhi Limthongkul, a fierce critic of Thaksin. ASTV played a major role in the protests that brought down Thaksin, and was funded almost entirely from donations and from selling goods bought at wholesale prices from supporters and sold retail to other supporters. The Manager Group (Wagstaff, 2010).

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On September 19, 2006, while caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was on an official visit to the United States, a group of military and police leaders launched a successful coup d’état against his government. This was the first such military coup since 1991 and defied a belief held by many people (including this author) that such coups were a thing of the past, or at least extremely unlikely. Various news outlets have commented on the apparent proximate causes of the coup. These causes include attempts by Thaksin’s government to place sympathetic allies in the military leadership, indignation about accusations of military involvement in an assassination attempt on Thaksin, and public disgust with corruption among Thaksin and his political allies. This article explores the reasons for the coup from a less proximate and longer-term perspective. How could a military coup occur in a country acknowledged as having made the transition to democracy and seen as on its way to consolidating that transition? (Stern, 2007).

Before the coup, there was a consensus that Thailand was a democracy. It had made the transition to what has been dubbed a “formal democracy” or an “electoral democracy.”1 If so, what is missing from Thailand’s democratic credentials that allowed an unelected, army-led government to take control, abrogate the constitution, and place strong restrictions on the media and political gatherings? A number of factors help to answer this question. This essay focuses on the lack of a mass political movement or group that is well-organized, well-financed, and motivated enough to mount a successful, sustained challenge to the key power holders in Thailand. These key powers in Thailand are high-level government politicians (typically at the cabinet level), the Thai owners or major Thai shareholders of large domestic corporations, and high-ranking military leaders.2 Over the past three to four decades, these groups have driven the overall direction of Thai democracy, so understanding who might confront this political dominance says a great deal about the future of Thai politics (Stern, 2007)

There is no doubt that many of Thaksin’s personal qualities were highly valued according to the rural constitution’s measures of strong administration. He had a record of extraordinary business success, he was a capable public speaker and became a charismatic media performer, and he had excellent educational qualifications. Particularly important in local perceptions was that Thaksin could speak English well – a key cultural marker of social connection, sophistication and intellect. What all this meant was that Thaksin could represent Thailand effectively on the world stage. ”Thailand is famous now,” Baan Tiam’s assistant headman told me, ”everyone has heard of Prime Minister Thaksin.”

There was one particular aspect of his administration that contributed to the Thaksin mystique and reinforced the image that he was a national leader who could operate effectively on the world stage. Local supporters regularly cited the fact that Thaksin had cleared the IMF debt that had been Thailand’s national burden in the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis. They thought that this had enhanced Thailand’s international status, improved the country’s credit rating and enabled the government to better support its own population. Some even suggested that Thaksin’s success in settling the IMF debt was an indication that, given time, he would be able to deal with the problem of household debt. This electorally beneficial blurring of national and private debt was expressed nicely by the owner of one of Baan Tiam’s noodle shops: ”In the past any Thai child that was born was The Rural Constitution and Elections in Northern Thailand 99 Downloaded By: [EBSCOHost EJS Content Distribution] At: 11:20 11 December 2007 60,000 baht in debt. But now the IMF debt is gone and Thailand’s new born can rest easy. And money is coming into the village. Thaksin has done a good job. As for the other side – I’ve seen nothing.” Another factor that acted strongly in Thaksin’s favour was his penchant for high profile campaigns (or what Thaksin called ”wars”). The ambitious targets and tight deadlines of these campaigns clearly captured the local imagination (WALKER, 2008).

The TRT party, formed by Thaksin in 1999, benefitted politically from the devastation of the 1997 Asian financial crisis on Thailand’s economy, and subsequent loss of support for the ruling Democrats. Thaksin’s populist platform appealed to a wide cross-section of Thais, and the TRT easily secured a clear majority in the parliament by forming a coalition with a handful of smaller parties. The Thaksin government has bolstered its standing by carefully courting several key power centers: the military, the business and banking elite, provincial political bosses, and the royal family. Many analysts contend that Thaksin and his party enjoy power unprecedented in modern Thai politics.19 Fueled by positive coverage of Thaksin’s response to the tsunami, the TRT won the February 2005 parliamentary elections outright – a first in Thai politics – by capturing 376 of the 500 seats. The main opposition party, the Democrats, captured only 96 seats, short of the 201 seats needed to propose a censure debate against the prime minister. Only in the restive South did the Democrats dominate, winning 52 of 54 seats.20 TRT swiftly dropped its former coalition party and formed a singleparty government. By summer 2005, however, Thaksin’s popularity was faltering due to a weak economy in the face of rising oil prices, coverage of a corruption scandal involving Cabinet members, and his failure to stem violence in the South. Nevertheless, Thaksin has pushed ahead with ambitious public works spending programs and a potent opposition force has yet to develop

In Thailand, as network television has taken a bigger and bigger share of revenue from media advertising accounts, and competition intensified in the 2000s under the aggressive capitalism ushered in by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, network television started to expand its news programmes, essentially by employing the technique of mixing news with entertainment, which was popular with both advertisers and audiences who seemed to be satisfied with ‘superficial news presented through the medium of empty chit-chat programme formats on network television’ (Boonyaketmala 2007). The local providers have a keen teacher in global media owner Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s entry into the Asian media market, which began with the creation in 1991 of STAR (Satellite Television Asian Region), ‘redefined the viewing experience for millions, and influenced news and current affairs television across the Asia region with a shift from a serious to a more popular news agenda, driven by the logic of maximizing profit’ (Thussu 2004). It is the link between the mass media and politics in Southeast Asia that has highlighted the process of celebrification. Southeast Asian states comprise overlapping cultural elements, both modern and traditional, where rulers like Soekarno, the first president of post colonial Indonesia, looked to traditional symbols to reinforce his authority. Technology serves to mediate their reputations, as ‘culturally recognized symbols of authority become implicated in new forms and media agencies act as amplifiers’ (Hughes-Freeland 2007, p. 194). These elements combine and are produced as celebrity through the print and broadcast media, performing a style of populism that creates an overlap, either between traditional and rational institutions, or between authoritarian and democratic polities, as sacral and secular symbols engage with celebrity to be exploited in personality cults (ibid., p. 193). (Woodier, 2008)

In response, the Prime Minister and leader of the governing Thai Rak Thai party, Thaksin Shinawatra, claimed that ‘Thai journalists have the maximum amount of freedom to do their work’, and invited delegates from Reporter without Borders on a tour of newspaper offices so they could see for themselves that journalists enjoy ‘real freedom’ Refusing the invitation, Reporters without Borders (2005) instead published an open letter outlining the need ‘to take a number of measures that would enable Thailand to improve its ranking in the 2006 index’ and announcing that, for the first time in fifteen years, ‘field investigations’ were being planned to examine the erosion of media independence and recurring violations of freedom of expression. The Reporters without Borders open letter came after nearly five years of ruling party media interference. Even in the few months prior to the publication of the Index numerous events were telling the tale – multimillion baht libel suits against journalists and NGO media activists proceeding through the courts, removal of television presenters from current affairs programs, closure of community radio stations, restrictions on the publication and scope of public opinion polling, stalled appointments for the National Broadcasting Commission, the regulatory body mandated by the Thai Constitution to oversee broadcast media, ‘hostile’ business takeover bids on major media outlets critical of government policy – all of which were judged as incriminating evidence of continued self-serving political manipulation and the corrosion of civil society under the ‘Thaksin regime’ (see McCargo and Ukrist, 2005; Pasuk and Baker, 2004) In his assessment, Surassak Glahan (2005) from Asia Media Forum wrote: ‘Imagine an Asian country where its citizens get information from half a dozen free TV channels, scores of daily periodicals and magazines – but all are owned by a small group of people who are closely linked to one another and have good connections to the powers that be’. Human rights campaigners, academics and a range of public intellectuals long recognizing the crucial relationship between the workings of a democratically based culture and the media’s capacity for comment and scrutiny began to talk of the ‘Shinawatra model’ (Glahan, 2005: 1), which appeared to include routine silencing of critical voices by government harassment, intimidation and if necessary the use of state violence. For Pasuk and Baker (2004) such tactics were a grim reminder of Thailand’s past military regimes. As we know, the political situation in Thailand has changed dramatically. Back in January 2001, the national election was heralded as the beginning of a new era of governance and civil society, the first following the launch of the new ‘people’s constitution’ in 1997. By September 2006, after considerable political uncertainty, including an annulled election earlier in the year boycotted by opposition parties, sections of the military elite staged a non-violent ‘yellow ribbon coup’, dislodging the Thaksin stranglehold on government and promising a revitalized democracy.

Despite efforts by the provisional military leadership to diffuse political strife and promote a climate of reform and reconciliation, including the adoption of a new constitution and the staging of another election to re-establish some resemblence of democratic process, media independence and freedom of expression seemed no further advanced than under the ‘Shinawatra model’. A number of public statements released to coincide withWorld Press Freedom Day inMay 2008 revealed the depth of the ethical and ideological fault lines. In a joint communiqu´e, Thai print and broadcast journalists (Thai Journalist Association, 2008) pointed to the spread of a ‘hostile and threatening climate’ confronting working media professionals on a daily basis, cultivated by the recently elected PrimeMinister, Samak Sundaravej and and patterns of media consumption and then to campaign for the development of media more suitable for child viewers and readers (Foundation for Child Development, 2004). Radio programs were also produced to provide advice and information for parents in an attempt to counter what was seen as the pernicious influence of media output and the decline of family-based authority. In an attempt to demystify the actual production process, a further effort focused on young people making their own programs for community radio (see www.childmedia.net). Recognizing the pervasiveness of all forms media in more areas of everyday life, the Foundation began to look for a broader approach that would, in the words of the Director of the Foundation, ‘fight with the mainstream media who are equipped with capital and technology’ (see Sawasdipanich, 1991). With the aim of promoting media education nationwide, in 1995 the Foundation in collaboration with the Faculty of Education at Chulalongkorn University organised a seminar entitled ‘Direction of Media Education in Thailand’. This was the first attempt by the Foundation to introduce a media education course into teacher training programs.

Although several high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Education and many well-known scholars attended the seminar, the proposal to set up media education courses proved to be short-lived. Undeterred, the Foundation, with assistance from media researchers, completed writing a media education curriculum for classroom teachers (see Lavender, 1995). The up-take, however, was minimal, as teacher perception tended to equate media education with the use of teaching aids. In 2003, the Foundation received funding from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation to run a program to develop children’s media literacy in relation to advertising, and more recently significant advances were made when a provisional media education curriculum as well as a teaching activities book were introduced as a pilot program in fifteen schools in Bangkok. (John Langer, 2009).


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