State cash casts a shadow on media reform
Political interference in the media has long been a worrying issue for society. In Thailand, the government still holds a tight grip over free television channels as well as radio stations.
A file photo shows journalists calling for press freedom. The government's extensive use of 'media buying' is being blamed for censoring reporting on state corruption. pawat Laopaisarntaksin
Most public television channels are either state-owned (Channels 5, 9 and 11) or under government concessions (Channels 3 and 7). Only Thai PBS is relatively independent of executive power both structurally and financially.
Its budget is allocated by the state, but its boards are nominated by civil society groups and professional media associations. As for radio stations, more than 500 FM and AM radio frequencies still belong to the government.
That means newspapers are the only form of mass media not technically under the control of the state and hence have a certain level of freedom to unmask government corruption to the public.
As a result, newspapers are the target of the state's "media buying" attempts. The industry relies on revenue from selling advertising space for roughly 75-80% of its income. There is plenty of room for the government to exploit its unlimited advertising spending to influence news reports.
Fierce competition among newspapers themselves and rising competition from online media means small newspapers are particularly vulnerable because they require the government's business to survive financially.
Recognising this weak spot, the government may conceivably use public funds to "hush" reporting on corruption cases in which it is involved.
There are two potential ways to mitigate the problem of media buying.
The first would be to regulate government advertising spending.
AC Nielsen Company estimates that in 2013 the Thai government spent roughly 8 billion baht on advertising through mainstream media including television, radio or newspapers. This amount does not include government spending on events or conferences which, according to public finance and advertising experts, is estimated to be around the same figure.
However, what matters in this discussion is not the question of whether the spending is too high, but rather, whether it is for public or political benefit.
Sometimes, government departments or agencies advertise themselves. They want the media to write reports that are favourable to them. After all, the cash they spend on advertising is public money, why should they care?
A simple way of spotting a politically motivated advert is by looking out for blatant self-promotion. A good example is the full-page newspaper ads printed in colour, of which a half the space is occupied by a photo of a political office-holder smiling broadly.
These are often accompanied by a brief uninformative message to the public such as: "It is time to eradicate illegal drugs," something that should obviously be every government's mission.
To prevent this opportunistic behaviour, there must be a law to prohibit public officials from using their photograph, voice or even signature on adverts funded by public resources. The use of party political symbols or slogans must also be banned on such ads.
Every publicly funded news articles or adverts should come with a disclaimer: "Produced by public money." That would allow readers to distinguish such pieces from articles or columns generated by the newspaper. But laws to this end would fail without effective enforcement and sanctions.
Public agencies are required to disclose procurement information and related cabinet decisions on their websites under the Official Information Act 1997. As an addition to that, the cabinet (of a willing government) could pass regulations requiring state agencies to publicise advertising and public relations expenses. Failure to do so would then be considered negligence of duty under the Criminal Code.
The second option is to increase the regulation of newspapers.
The industry itself must play a role in solving the government's problematic buying of media. Outlets that fail to perform their role properly, by selectively reporting news for example, must be sanctioned, while those that face threats from the political establishment must be protected and encouraged to remain committed to the principles of journalism.
The most common-sense way of doing this in Thailand would be through self-regulation, such as through the National Press Council of Thailand (NPCT).
The content of its current Code of Ethics meets international standards, but it does not have much bite. This is because membership is voluntary, allowing members who disagree with the council's decisions to withdraw their membership.
But making membership mandatory by law has its own risks. The NPCT would become the de facto regulator of the print media. Power tends to corrupt, so it may be better not to give the council new legal responsibilities, but to build its "soft powers" based on the existing model of self-regulation.
A review of high-profile press councils in countries including Sweden and the UK shows that membership is voluntary. The heart of their effectiveness lies in the transparent and reliable governance structure.
Boards of press councils in these countries are composed of not only representatives of the media industry, but also of those from civil society, academics and even people from public agencies.
Additionally, outside directors are generally selected through an open and transparent process, unlike that of the NPCT whereby expert board members are appointed by media owners and news editors.
The NPCT board must be composed of independent individuals from a diverse range of professions and backgrounds. These people should be appointed by consensus so that members will readily comply with their decisions or advice.
At the same time, these expert directors must also command respect from the broader community, so the council will have the support of not only members, but the public too.
That may become handy when there is a rift among members. Such reforms would enhance the credibility of the NPCT as an impartial and professional self-regulatory body.
Deunden Nikomborirak, PhD, is research director for economic governance, Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Tippatrai Saelawong is a researcher at TDRI. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.