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Thai regulator faces tough task to clean up TV and radio market
Publication Date : 04-03-2013
The kingdom of 65 million people has six free-to-air TV stations, which are either state agencies or run by private companies
Thailand's soap opera fans erupted in anger when the last episodes of a prime-time drama, Nua Mek 2, which centred on a corrupt politician, were suddenly yanked from the airwaves.
The drama's owner, Channel 3, cited "inappropriate content" for its move in January, only to raise the hackles of viewers and social critics, who alleged it was an attempt by ruling politicians to censor allusions to their misdeeds.
Channel 3, after all, operates under a concession from state-owned broadcaster Mass Communication Organisation of Thailand, which critics argue has the power to terminate the arrangement if its concessionaire does not do its bidding.
The episode spurred discussion on the opaque but freewheeling media scene in Thailand, which regulators have only just started to untangle and scrutinise.
The kingdom of 65 million people has six free-to-air TV stations, which are either state agencies or run by private companies with concessions from state-owned entities, based on agreements the public is not privy to. On top of that, there are more than 200 satellite TV channels, almost 1,000 cable TV channels and more than 7,000 radio stations.
Until this year, almost all of these were unregulated, to the exasperation of consumers stung by the false advertising, hidden advertising, hate speech and - more recently - unexplained disruption in programming in particularly notorious media outlets.
Thailand's new radio and TV regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), began reining some in this year by issuing provisional one-year licences to 848 radio stations and 322 cable and satellite TV stations.
If the channels do not violate rules - like refraining from hate speech - they would be granted long-term licences to operate.
Several thousand applications for licences are still being reviewed.
It is a mammoth task and also a delicate one, NBTC commissioner Supinya Klangnarong tells The Straits Times.
In theory, unlicensed broadcasters could be jailed and fined, but NBTC cannot wield its stick too heavily lest it provokes a mass revolt from entrenched interests in the 74.5 billion baht (US$2.48 billion) a year radio-and-TV market, she said.
"If we are too tough, we might fail," she added.
Market research company Nielsen estimates that advertisement spending for cable and satellite TV hit about 4 billion baht last year - representing a 14 per cent growth over the previous year.
Among the industry players is the family of billionaire and fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which owns an Internet and satellite TV station called Voice TV.
Analysts say there is a lot to clean up. Media Monitor, an independent watchdog that tracks content on the mass media, flags as particularly dangerous the practice of peddling dubious medicine or making false claims about food products on certain satellite-TV channels. Meanwhile, unscrupulous channels insert mentions of "magic stones" or other products in their regular programming, in the hope of selling them by mail order.
Hate speech is another problem, as Thailand's polarised politics spills over into broadcast content on certain radio and TV stations.
Chulalongkorn University media policy researcher Chanansara Oranop Na Ayutthaya has collected a host of examples in recent years, including one where a "red-shirt" community radio aligned with the interests of mainly rural, up-country voters called upon listeners to "come to curse those privileged classes... to be destroyed and to die very soon".
That said, perhaps the hardest task in store for NBTC is to issue licences to free-to-air TV channels, rued Supinya.
This will involve getting state-owned entities to give up the revenue they currently generate from granting concessions to channel operators.
But Supinya believes licensing will reduce the chances of corruption - and the likelihood of political interference, widely suspected to be the reason for the Nua Mek 2 fiasco.
Media regulation, in this case, will also help improve media freedom, said Chanansara.