A chance to fix the NBTC

A chance to fix the NBTC

The NBTC sponsored the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting in Bangkok last December. (Photo provided)
The NBTC sponsored the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting in Bangkok last December. (Photo provided)

The broadcast business has declared an emergency of sorts over the future of the industry's regulators. The terms for executives in charge of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) expire on Oct 6. Realistically, there is not enough time to appoint a new board.

This comes at the same time as a new NBTC law comes into effect. Passed by the junta's National Legislative Assembly (NLA), it requires the appointment of a whole new set of commissioners. This is something of a classic good news-bad news situation.

It seems to be a bureaucratic fumble. In fact, though, it is an excellent opportunity. The country can come out ahead if Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the junta handle the problem realistically. The broadcasting regulator needs more than just emergency appointments to the NBTC. It needs to reform or even restart the agency. Under the current leadership, the NBTC has lost its way many times. New leaders, members and direction can reboot the commission and turn it around.

The brilliant idea of an independent broadcast regulator was first formulated in the 1997 people's constitution. Its purpose, stated in that charter, was to have a body with specific powers to take back the airwaves from vested interests -- chiefly the military and government -- and make broadcasting a service for all Thais. That was a daunting challenge. It still is.

The reasons for the lack of public participation in broadcasting are varied and complicated. The 2014 coup, for example, did more to end public and community radio than any NBTC action. But the commission never fought the order to close local broadcasters. It has made no move to try to enlarge public TV beyond the often beleaguered Thai PBS. The military and government between them not only control all important radio and broadcasting in the country, they own almost all of it, without even pro forma objections.

Mobile phones operate wirelessly as well. Again, the NBTC has failed to distinguish itself. It developed licensing months and years behind both the world and regional standards for 3G and 4G services. And the licence auctions were shamelessly one-sided for the rich and established phone companies.

Just as there has been no attempt to remove the huge privileges of state-owned TOT and CAT Telecom, as required constitutionally, the NBTC has only even considered issuing licences to the three mobile firms already operating.

The recent attempted power grabs by the NBTC provide proof the agency has strayed far from its core assignment. Gen Prayut made a poor decision to designate the NBTC as a broadcast and internet censor. But the commission's attempts to start banking services, indulge in security matters and then to illegally attempt to take over business registration and taxation went too far. Trying to force the country to undergo fingerprinting and facial-recognition scans is a deep dive into individual privacy.

The broadcast industry has called on the prime minister to use his autocratic Section 44 powers to appoint a new NBTC board. Certainly efforts are well behind the deadline, and the clock is ticking.

The new NBTC law went into effect on June 23, putting the eight commissioners out of work by October. Very soon, the broadcasting regulator will be only an acting commission, with virtually no enforcement power at all.

Important issues are up for decision. Gen Prayut has the power to order remedies all around. That should include new instructions for a new executive and a new set of commissioners.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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