BANGKOK -- Thai broadcasters and newspapers, often regarded as feisty and at times political agenda setters, have become increasingly beholden to the military regime, with deepening financial woes stemming from the rise of online media making them dependent on the government to remain afloat.
In late May, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha invoked the special, all-powerful law he enjoys as leader of the ruling military junta to impose a debt moratorium on 20 financially-strapped digital TV stations to help them pay a combined amount of 4.8 billion baht ($145.5 million) in license fees to a nominally independent broadcasting regulator.
The four-year-old digital television stations, which were all launched around the time of the 2014 coup when the current military government came into power, have taken up the bail-out offer.
At least 13 of these channels are owned by eight of the country's richest Thai-Chinese clans, all of which are listed in the annual Forbes list of billionaires. Among them are the families that own CP Group, the Thai food conglomerate, TCC Group, the beverage barons, and Bangkok Airways, the regional airline.
Meanwhile, editors in the newsrooms of English-language papers The Nation and Bangkok Post, whose holding companies are both listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand, are struggling to balance a flow of credible news stories while trying not to sink further into the red.
The Nation Multimedia Group had accumulated more than 2 billion baht in debt by the third-quarter of 2017 and reportedly hit 3 billion baht by the end of the year. Its cross-town rival, the older The Bangkok Post Public Company, shouldered losses of nearly 360 million baht by the end of last year, bleeding at the rate of one million baht a day.
Financial woes provided one explanation behind the recent newsroom shake-up at the Bangkok Post, whose main shareholder is the Chirathivat family, owners of the country's largest retailer Central Group. Umesh Pandey, the paper's editor for 22 months, was removed from his position in a dramatic showdown with management in mid-May.
Advertising pressure hovered over news coverage plans, said Umesh, adding that, at times, "the advertising department had to run the stories as adverts so as to please customers" after the stories were spiked -- or scrapped -- as "not worth covering." As editor, he was also expected to "get in touch with various industries to jointly organize events and seminars to help on the revenue side."
Following Umesh's removal, the Bangkok Post stressed in a statement that news coverage in its print edition and online platform had "never been interfered [with] by either the government or company executives."
The new owners of The Nation, who completed a takeover in April after a bitter acquisition battle, expect the paper's new editor to prioritize advertising revenue over credible news stories. "The new publisher is even open to government intervention, running advertorials and public relations articles in the paper to attract advertising and generate revenue," Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a veteran Thai journalist who has just been given the editor's seat, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "But I am struggling because of the damage it would do to the credibility of the paper."
Similar business pressures are sapping the Thai-language press, which enjoys a wider national reach, as they vie for a shrinking pool of advertising revenue.
Thai Rath, the country's largest Thai-language daily, with a 1 million circulation, has seen its profits slide on the back of this advertising crunch. Its profits halved from 2 billion baht in 2013 to 1 billion baht by 2016, according to the "2018 - Thailand Media Landscape", published by InfoQuest, a Thai media tracking company.
Two other Thai-language papers, Daily News and Matichon, had to stomach worse, with the former seeing its profits dip from less than 300 million baht in 2013 to just over 100 million baht by 2016, while the latter went from 100 million baht in profits to 64 million baht in losses over the same period, according to the report.
This downward business spiral has given rise to indirect and direct interventions in the newsroom, complete with new titles, in some cases. "Some newsrooms have what they call 'experts', who are not editors but can assign journalists to cover a story [about] companies that have been targeted for advertisement," revealed a media industry insider.
Thai newspapers' earnings are partly being undone by the rise of digital media in the country over the past four years, with advertising spending for digital media platforms surpassing that for newspapers for the first time in 2017.
A study by Kantar Worldpanel, a Spain-based company that monitors consumer trends globally, showed digital media advertising in Thailand would hit 11.8 billion baht last year, edging out the 10 billion baht spent on newspaper advertisements.
Other studies confirm this dip in spending on traditional media ads. Between 2016 and 2017, analog and digital TV channels saw advertising spending drop 6.8%, from 67.54 billion baht to 62.88 billion baht, according to Nielsen data as cited by research company eMarketer. Magazines took an even bigger blow, with ad spending falling 33%, from 2.93 billion to 1.94 billion.
Changing Thai tastes and the rise of online media have pushed local dailies as well as digital TV stations to the brink. Smartphones took off in Thailand during the second half of 2014, the same year these stations began broadcasting. According to the National Statistics Office of Thailand, more than 90% of Internet users in the country now go online via their smartphones. Currently, the country has a 130% mobile phone penetration rate for a population of over 67 million people.
With the arrivial of 3-G technology, "people began to turn to smartphones to view content because they had Internet access," Supinya Klangnarong, a former member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, the country's independent regulator, told Nikkei. "This has marked a new media era, because more Thais turn to their smartphones than TVs now."
This explains why analysts regard social media platforms such as Facebook, Line and Twitter as more influential in shaping the country's political conversation -- and even in checking the junta's excesses. It was a role once dominated by the newspapers.
Advertisers are following these eyeballs over to the newer digital platforms, notes the Digital Advertising Association of Thailand. Facebook has enjoyed the lion's share, gobbling up 33% of digital advertising spending in 2017, amounting to close to 4 billion baht.
However, seasoned observers of the Thai media point to a deeper business problem within an industry that, like all other sectors, went into a tailspin and witnessed bankruptcies because of the 1997 financial crisis. After the crisis, "all elements of Thai society had to reform to survive, but the media failed to do that," laments respected newspaper columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn of the crisis that forced 12 newspapers to fold. "Since the crisis, almost all the financial conditions of Thai dailies, vernacular or English, were no longer healthy."
Newspapers have consequently become more dependent on the government to prop them up. The advertising budget of the prime minister's office, often ranked among the top 10 big advertisers in the country, is one cash cow the country's newspaper groups have turned to. In 2014, the year the current junta grabbed power, the prime minister's advertising budget was 1.27 billion baht. It rose to 2 billion baht the following year.
Government largesse varies from direct advertisements to sponsoring public events for media houses. At times, ministries or state-owned enterprises allocate millions of baht in advertisements for chosen newspaper groups, with "some media groups enjoying annual allocations of 20 to 30 million baht," one media analyst revealed.
This culture of dependency may deepen, given forecasts by Nielsen that overall ad spending growth will be sluggish through 2020, with spending on traditional media continuing to decline while new formats gain ground.