Far-right outlet leaves military-owned channel

The departure of Top News from the military-owned Channel 5 is another local casualty of the geopolitical game among the great powers after the invasion of Ukraine. It demonstrates that Thai-US security relations remain strong despite anti-American sentiment at home and the growing influence of authoritarian powers. 

Top News founder and head Sonthiyan Chuenruthainaitham has confirmed the company’s departure from Channel 5 since the end of April, claiming that its bureaucracy imposed limitations on their work, making them hold back on their coverage. 

In returning to their own cable TV channel and social media platforms, they also claim that they will continue to work in the national interest to expose corruption and protect the nation, religions, and monarchy. Sonthiyan was a right-wing activist and one of the leading figures in the protests of the People's Democratic Reform Committee which led to the military coup in 2014.

Their final departure is the culmination of events which began with their false coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. The mistake led to a series of diplomatic missteps by the Thai military, followed by the resignation of the Channel's director, Lt Gen Rangsi Kitiyanasap. 

The confirmation of the parting of the ways came after Kanok Ratwongsakul, one of the four hosts from Top News who joined Channel 5 under the original one-year contract, announced on Friday that they would appear on the Channel until the end of April by request of the big shots. He also said that it resulted from a problem they did not start. 

"You can follow the truth at our home. A small one but sincere. No deference to anyone except our audience," said Kanok on Facebook.  

The other three hosts were Teera Tanyapaibul, Santisuk Marongsri, and Sathaporn Kuasakul. They had been hosting for the Channel since January. Other Top News hosts occasionally joined in news programmes including Anchalee Paireerak. 

Top News is a right-wing outlet which started broadcasting in January 2021. The right-wing hosts left more mainstream outlets (such as Nation TV) to join Top News after their ultraroyalist views led to public boycotts during pro-democracy protests in 2019-2020. Top News sponsors were also a target of the boycott from the start of broadcasting.

The question of how they tried to amend the content or negotiate the end of the 65-million baht contract offered to Channel 5 by Galaxy Media Corporation (GMC) has not yet been answered.

Their partnership started showing strain when Kanok and Teera broadcast misinformation, alleging that people were faking casualties in Ukraine, claims that were falsified later by a simple Google search.

The Thai Broadcast Journalists Association was pressured to begin an investigation and said that the hosts had apologized the day after the mistake and so this did not constitute a violation of professional ethics. However, a diplomatic disaster blew up when Lt Gen Rangsi Kitiyanasap met with Russian Ambassador Evgeny Tomikhin on 22 March to cooperate on a more ‘balanced’ coverage. 

Diplomatic Disaster 

The timing of the meeting could not have been worse, coming just one day before Royal Thai Army Chief Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae was scheduled to welcome Gen Charles Flynn, Commanding General of the US Army Pacific on his first visit to Thailand to participate in the Closing Ceremony of the annual Hanuman Guardian bilateral military exercises. 

The US Embassy in Thailand said that Gen Flynn's visit from 23-25 March "is part of ongoing engagements to further shared security objectives, increase the complexity of military exercises, support Thailand’s military modernization, and advance a Free and Open Indo-Pacific."

Lt Gen Rangsi Kitiyanasap had to cancel a press conference on 24 March, which was supposed to announce cooperation between Channel 5 and Russia, China, and Iran on the exchange of information. Instead, he rushed to meet with Ukrainian Chargé d'Affaires Oleksandr Lysak, with reassurances that Channel 5 would continue to provide ‘neutral’ news coverage. 

Lt Gen Rangsi Kitiyanasap said later that the conference had to be cancelled because of a scheduling conflict. It was the Russian and Iranian Embassy who contacted him first via Paisal Puechmongkol, a former assistant of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and a Vice President of the Thai-Chinese Culture and Economy Association. 

Paisal, along with yellow shirt leader Sonthi Limthongkul, has been vocal since the invasion of Ukraine, using the opportunity to try to distance Thailand from the US and get closer to other authoritarian major powers. Coining the term 'NATO 2', they have argued that the close Thai-US alliance could invite threats from other major powers, in the way that Ukraine's attempt to join NATO led to the invasion by Russia.  

US-Thai security relations, which have always been strong despite military coups and anti-American sentiment among far-right groups, comes with heavy military funding for the Royal Thai army. The export of arms from the US to Thailand in 2019 alone is almost double Russia's exports in 15 years despite an attempt by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha after the 2014 coup to buy more weapons from Russia. 

The security ties also include US$7 million from the Countering Chinese Influence Fund in 2021 "for English, technical operational, and professional training" for the Thai Army. According to Congress, the Fund's objective is to protect the international order and the national interests of the US or other countries against the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Four days after he cancelled his press conference, Lt Gen Rangsi Kitiyanasap resigned as Director of Channel 5 for personal reasons which he declined to specify, effective from 7 April. He denied that he was sacked by Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae, saying that it would be unfair to the Army Chief who only authorized his resignation. 

180 degrees U-Turn

After the resignation of its Director, the Channel took a completely different approach towards coverage, creating another problem: a prohibition on any coverage on the invasion of Ukraine is considered media censorship.

On 28 March, a news programme at noon hosted by Anchalee Paireerak was suddenly halted in the middle of a segment on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. She revealed a day later that Channel 5 had imposed a policy prohibiting any coverage on the invasion of Ukraine since 25 March, but she disobeyed the order. 

"We are not in conflict with anyone, we do the duty we must do, we do the duty to cover the news straightforwardly," said Anchalee. 

At the time, Top News said that they would depart from Channel 5 by the end of March. On 31 March, the Public Relations Department of the Royal Thai Army released an apology to the public for mismanaging the news coverage and said that the situation in Ukraine should continue to be reported. Sonthiyan posted a picture online the same day to thank Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae for letting them stay which we later came to learn meant just a delay until the end of April. 

Following the strained partnership, Thai academics expressed to BBC Thai concerns that the arrangement was unreasonable on many levels including the fact that Channel 5 should not be considered as having the status of a news source in a democratic society but rather as a government mouthpiece. The channel was also unable to improve their own staff and instead invited a questionable media company to come in to earn advertising revenue. 

While other media companies have to compete to win government concessions to broadcast and earn advertising revenue, Channel 5 have the privilege of skipping the process. It is also a major provider of digital TV infrastructure. Under the current law, they are allowed to earn money from advertising on a non-profit basis, but their advertising time (8-10 minutes per hour) is not much different from those of other digital TV stations (12 minutes 30 seconds per hour), according to BBC Thai. 

On 2 May, Top News hosts were no longer found on Channel 5's broadcasting schedule. And developments in the Russia-Ukraine war have been covered normally on Channel 5 news by other hosts. 

 

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