Thai PBS and the test of a public service TV
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Thai PBS and the test of a public service TV

Is TPBS a conspiracy?

Thais like to blow their own trumpet about many things -- the only country in Southeast Asia not to have been colonised, Bangkok as the capital with the most number of Facebook users, and Siam Paragon as the place with the most Instagram uploads. In 2009 a few Thais started bragging about the first public service television in Southeast Asia, the Thai Public Broadcasting Service or Thai PBS. But now is probably not the time to gloat about this, more than ever.

Quite recently, many incidents have unfolded that turned the spotlight to the otherwise quite oblivious station. The station director, a veteran journalist and former BBC regional director for Southeast Asia, was sacked last October for alleged "failed performance" by the Policy Board, only to be replaced last week by Krissada Ruang-areerat, former manager of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth). The appointment is eyebrow raising given that Mr Krissada, who will be in charge starting next month, is a former dentist and public health person with no professional media or journalistic experience.

Looking back, one can't help but wonder whether the creators of the station, who were mostly technocrats, ever foresaw such a phenomenon or whether this was actually the long-awaited plan now closer to being accomplished.

This is not a groundless accusation given the station's unusual beginning. Notably, Thai PBS was created on an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) previously assigned to the former iTV or Independent Television, a commercial stake under Shin Corporation of the Shinawatra family. In 2007, iTV was nationalised after the Supreme Administrative Court ruled it breached a concession contract with the state.

Unlike its predecessors in Europe, where the tradition of public service broadcasting (PSB) began in the 1930s, Thai PBS is a novelty in a country long dominated by state ownership and control of broadcasting. Also unlike their European counterparts that emerged in democratic regimes, Thai PBS was created during a democratic pause after the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra.

To many critics, the conversion of iTV into Thai PBS in the post-coup era was seen as a deliberate effort to clip Thaksin of an important political machine while creating a new and powerful tool for anti-Thaksin forces, particularly the faction that believes strongly in social engineering and the role of the media as an agent to catalyse positive social change. Thai PBS was originally conceived as a brainchild of a group of media reform researchers under close alliances with technocratic supporters of the Thai Health Foundation.

The Thai PBS law, which was passed by the coup-appointed National Legislative Assembly in late 2008, came out in the same media law cohort and under the same technical supervision as the 2007 Computer Crime Act, and the 2008 Broadcasting Act. The law also has provisions that tied in directly with the subsequent 2010 Act to Assign Frequency and Regulation of Broadcasting and Telecommunications Act or the NBTC law.

The design of Thai PBS also followed the same model as the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and its sibling organisations such as the National Health Office, the National Health Security Office, and the National Health System Reform Office in that all have their revenues allocated from earmarked taxes levied on alcohol and tobacco, in other words the "sin taxes".

A man crosses a flyover in front of Thai PBS head office on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. The appointment of the station's new director is likely to bring more conflict at the station. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Similar to the other members of the "H" clan, Thai PBS also receives, by enforcement of the provision in its law, an annual sum of 2 billion baht from the same financial source, hence making it the only TV station that does not have to "do programming to earn money" but instead "earn money to do programming".

But getting its income allocated from the state also forces Thai PBS to come under a bureaucratic system of paperwork and inflexibility. Its personnel, particularly those in full-time administrative and policy positions, are also regarded as officials of the state and subject to the same regulation and scrutiny.

Insofar as the station's policy board is concerned, the Thai PBS law stipulates that the nine-member committee, representing three major areas -- democratic development, organisational management, and mass media -- be appointed from a selection process run by a designated selection committee comprising representatives from 15 organisations representing state, private and civic agencies. Some of these organisations are no longer active and many are within the same civic network. The Thai Health Promotion Foundation manager, president of the Thai Press Council of Thailand, and president of the Thai Broadcast Journalist Association are among the selection committee of the Thai PBS Policy Board.

In any case, the past eight years of Thai PBS's operation has seen at least three policy boards (they alternated in tenure), two station directors who have created an image of an "NGO TV station with bureaucratic operation", possession of all types of broadcast licences -- network, facility and service -- and a minimal audience rating.

Nevertheless, the station has introduced and opened space for many interesting, some cutting-edge, publicly beneficial programmes that would not be able to find home anywhere else and a strong ethical practice, a rarity in the Thai mass media. It has also rendered significant broadcasting opportunities to many civic journalists and small independent programme producers.

But within these eight years, the station has also been wracked with conflicts, internally and externally. The military-dominated politics aside, internal politics has long persisted in the organisation between more progressive staff that see the station as a public sphere for all citizens, regardless of their ideologies, and those that dwell on the "society of goodness" ideology.

Unfortunately, the recent decision to place the former Thai Health Promotion Foundation manager at the station's steering wheel may not be a solution to this long-existing problem.

It remains to be seen whether Thai PBS will fall more deeply into the "social crony of virtue" or if it will be able to validate its "public service television" title.

Assistant Professor Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication, and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

Pirongrong Ramasoota

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, is a professor of communication at Chulalongkorn University and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia

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