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Straight to the Point: Will today mark the birth of public broadcasting in Thailand?

Today our unelected National Legislative Assembly is scheduled to complete the second and third readings of the Public Broadcasting Bill, which may actually result in the birth of public broadcasting in Thailand.

I don't approve of the NLA, which I consider to be the illegitimate offspring of our military dictatorship, and which has passed some very repressive laws such as the Computer Crimes Act.

Today, however, I find myself in the difficult and contradictory position experienced by many Thai social reformists, of actually supporting the passage of a bill through the NLA.

I can already hear the cries of "Shame!" from the "morally correct" segment of anti-dictatorship activists.

Credit for this bill must go to a coalition of civil society organisations, including the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, who have waged a long campaign for public broadcasting; and to Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich of the Thai Development Research Institute who was instrumental in drafting the bill.

Radio and television broadcasting in Thailand has always served the interests of "the State" as distinct from "the Public". This means that broadcasting has generally functioned as a propaganda tool for the incumbent government. Prime ministers and ministers have been allowed to say what they want to the public, while the public has never been allowed to respond, and serious critics of the government have routinely been barred from the airwaves.

The fact that half of our radio and television stations are owned and controlled by the military, and the remainder by other state agencies such as the Public Relations Department, is certainly not conducive to the development of democracy, freedom of expression and public debate in Thai society.

The non-transparent and extremely lucrative concessions granted to private companies for broadcasting and programming rights has allowed a small number of music industry and radio/television production companies to monopolise the uninspiring entertainment programming that dominates both national and local free-to-air broadcasting.

There is no room for quality, educational or alternative programming, or even for any kind of choice or variety. The ratings and the "rake-ins" dictate everything.

The pickings are so rich that Saengchai Sunthornwat, former director of the Mass Communications Organisation of Thailand (MCOT) was assassinated in 1996 for standing up to mafia-type commercial entertainment interests.

While certainly not flawless, the draft version of the Public Broadcasting Bill which has passed the NLA committee reading does allow for the first-time creation of a Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TPBS), largely free from government control and commercial interests, run by a policy board and a management committee appointed by the policy board.

Members of the TPBS policy board are to be chosen every four years by a selection panel consisting of the leaders of three media associations, an academic council of media specialists, four NGO umbrella organisations (on social development, consumer rights, the disabled, children and youth), the Thailand Environment Institute, the Lawyers Council of Thailand, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, and the permanent secretaries of the Prime Minister's Office and the ministries of Finance, Culture and Education.

Funding for TPBS would be mainly provided by 1.5% of excise duties on alcohol and cigarettes.

I believe that funding should instead come from a share of state revenues from commercial broadcasting concessions.

The final clause of the bill allows for the properties and broadcasting infrastructure of TITV (the former ITV channel, now managed by the state) to be transferred to TPBS for use in its operations, thus enabling a quick start for public broadcasting.

This clause is being challenged by some NLA members, and if eliminated, would effectively delay the operations of TPBS by many years.

Let us hope that the bill is passed by the NLA more or less in its present form, and leads to a vibrant new form of independent broadcasting in Thailand, both educational and entertaining, contributing to the development of democracy, public debate and more accountable government.

Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected Senator for Bangkok and at present the Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development.

First Published in Bangkok Post


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