MCOT removes TV host after students vote down NCPO agenda

The board of the state-owned broadcaster MCOT has removed TV host Orawan Choodee from the debate programme "Election War '19" after she allowed 100 students attending the televised debate on 28 February to voice their opposition to the NCPO government's agenda.

Orawan was a co-host on the live debate programme "Election War '19" along with radio broadcaster Veera Theerapat. She posted on her Facebook page on Friday (1 March 2019) that she was dismissed by the MCOT board after the second episode of the programme aired on 28 February. The episode was called “New People, New Politics” and featured 10 first-time MP candidates. 100 first-time voters from 16 universities were also invited to attend the televised debate, and at the end of the programme, they were asked to vote on whether they agree or disagree with the following four statements about the current political situation:

  1. Do you agree with Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha’s decision not to debate his political opponents?
  2. Do you agree with the provisional clause in the 2017 Constitution allowing the 250 senators to vote for the Prime Minister?
  3. Do you think that the 20-year National Strategy is necessary for Thailand?
  4. Do you agree that it does not matter whether Thailand is fully or partially democratic as long as people’s lives are improved?

The overwhelming majority of the students disagreed with all four statements. Orawan said that the students were not given the questions beforehand, but that in voicing their opinion, they have “frightened those in power so much that they think this is an attack on the government, even though these are issues every Thai person has the right to express their opinion about for the sake of our future.”

Orawan said that she accepted the board’s decision to dismiss her from the programme, but she cannot accept their accusation that she is biased, and would like to thank the audience for their positive feedback on the debate.

Suwit Mingmol, president of the MCOT union, said the union is investigating the reasons behind the board’s decision to dismiss Orawan. He said that the programme was well-received by the majority of the audience, and that it was professionally ethical. If there is no explanation, then it can be assumed that there has been interference with the media, which will affect the people’s access to information they can use to inform themselves ahead of the upcoming election.

“First, we will see if the order is real or not,” said Suwit, “and if there is no sufficient justification, or if the decision is not reconsidered, the union will move to issue a statement calling for protection of work that follows professional ethics.”

The Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) issued a statement on Saturday (2 March) that the decision to remove Orawan from her position as a co-host of the debate programme was made without sufficient proof that her action is an attempt to cause an attack on the government. The statement also said that the board’s decision is only an excuse to impede the media’s work, and is inappropriate since it can be considered as interference with media freedom and a direct attack on the media. As we are approaching the general election on 24 March, the media plays an important role in raising among the public of their voting rights and allows them to participate in scrutinizing policies, which is beneficial to the public. The TBJA therefore urges Modern Nine TV’s management and the MCOT Board to reconsider their decision.

BBC Thai reported that Kematat Paladesh, the MCOT President, also issued a statement on Saturday in response to the situation. He said that there may have been a misunderstanding on what happened. Kematat explained that the MCOT planned to broadcast 4 live debates, the next two on 7 and 14 March. The production team has been holding meetings after every episode to evaluate the broadcast in order to improve the quality of the programme. For the third episode of the programme, the topic of which is state welfare, Kematat said that he consulted an executive of the Thai News Agency whether the episode needs a different host with expertise in reporting economic news.

The statement also said that, as the president of the MCOT, Kematat is aware that media ethics and freedom is important, and the MCOT will not interfere with its news team’s work. Kematat then stated that there has never been a written order to dismiss Orawan, and that both Orawan and her co-host Veera Theerapat are still hosting shows on MCOT as usual, both on radio and television.

MCOT is a state-owned broadcaster, and while 12 of its board members are civilians, the chairman of the board is Gen Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, who is also a member of the National Legislative Assembly. Gen Chatchalerm retired as Chief of Staff of the Royal Thai Army 3 years ago and is also a member of the board of PTT plc and Chair of the Board of the Rubber Authority of Thailand.  Just after the coup in May 2014 and while still in the Army, he gave a press conference to the foreign media claiming that the coup was necessary to end protests that could have led to civil war.