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Thai coup darkens dawn of digital TV

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A soldier stands guard June 1 outside a Bangkok shopping mall.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Gleaming new television studios across Bangkok were preparing to unveil a slew of fresh programs to launch Thailand's digital broadcasting age. The big day was May 25, when 24 commercial stations, which had invested billions of baht, were to formally begin transmitting on a digital platform after weeks of trial runs.

     But the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, disrupted these plans when he seized power May 22 in Thailand's latest military coup. The first to feel the boot of the new junta were the country's media, including the digital broadcasters. Among those swiftly silenced by draconian censorship rules imposed under martial law were Thailand's four free-to-air analogue TV stations, a public TV station, 200 satellite TV stations and 7,000 community radio stations. Only one TV station, the military-owned Channel Five, remained on air to relay the junta's edicts.

     Toward the end of its first week in power, the junta eased its iron grip on some local stations. Yet, the new censorship regime affirms a chill that has descended on the "new kids" on Thailand's TV block. "Every channel must follow the military orders that were announced since martial law was declared ... orders number 14 and 18," Peerawat Chottitommo, editor-in-chief of Thai Rath TV, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We must follow the conditions of the NCPO," he added, referring to the new National Council for Peace and Order that is now running the country.

     The Council's edicts 14 and 18 have an Orwellian touch. They are clearly designed to restrain diverse views, which goes against the spirit of digital TV. Traditional free-to-air analogue broadcasters are known for toeing the official line relayed by of the government of the day. Under edict 14, all media are banned from interviewing former government officials, academics, judges and independent organizations that "seek to enlarge the conflict, distort facts (and) cause confusion in society (that) may lead to the use of violence." Edict 18 lists six categories that are off-limits to the media, including "criticism against the operation of the NCPO, its officers and parties concerned." 

Squashed ambitions

It is all a far cry from the vision of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, a parliament-approved regulator, that last year made digital TV the centerpiece of its new media agenda. "Digital TV stations should have been liberated by now, and not be under an obligation to be censored," Supinya Klangnarong, one of the commission's 11 commissioners, said in an interview. "There is no space for free debate. It is very unfortunate."

     The commission last September described the rush by prospective digital broadcasters to bid for the available licences as "the hottest auction in Thailand's broadcasting history." There was a reason to be bullish, as 33 companies snapped up 49 applications -- each paying 1.07 million baht ($33,160), just for the right to apply to bid for the licences for the 24 digital commercial channels. Ultimately, the winning bidders paid as much as $7 million each for news channels, in an auction that was intended to transform the country's media landscape.

     Among the big payers was Thai Rath TV, the recently established broadcasting arm of the leading local-language daily, Thai Rath, which has a circulation of more than 1 million. Its estimated start-up cost for the new venture was 5 billion baht. That included setting up a new studio in a building once called "The Palace," a famous disco in northern Bangkok, and staffing it with a 250-strong team.

     Analysts at Kasikornbank anticipated a windfall for the banking sector, given the initial costs the stations had to shoulder to reach TV audiences in Thailand's 22 million households (in a country of 67 million people). They estimated the financial value of this broadcasting shift would reach 100 billion baht. After all, millions of dollars had to be forked out for the licenses, and on top of that for production costs, airtime rental, new monitors and equipment to receive transmissions.

     The advertising sector had also set its sights on reaping a new harvest with the broadening and liberalization of the airwaves. Such hopes were shaped by Thailand's annual advertising budget in the pre-digital age. In 2011, it hovered at $3.2 billion, with more than half of that -- $1.8 billion -- poured into television, according to Credit Suisse Research.

     But little of that seems to matter to the junta. Its grip on critical and independent information has forced digital stations to freeze their production plans and resort to self-censorship. "It makes me want to cry," remarked one local media rights advocate. "Digital TV was meant to free us from the grip of the usual military propaganda."

Warning signs

In the days before the coup -- after the imposition of martial law on May 20 -- 11 satellite and cable TV stations and over 3,000 community radio stations were forced to shut down and troops were positioned inside the newsrooms of several broadcasters.

     Somchart Naakbangjong, owner of a community radio station in Pathumthani, north of Bangkok, was among those targeted. Heavily armed troops poured into his radio station at 7:30 p.m. on the first day of martial law, bringing to an abrupt halt a political program that was on air at the time. "They took all our equipment," said Somchart.  

     Even Facebook, which has nearly 26 million users, was momentarily silenced on the sixth day after the putsch, Thailand's 12th successive coup of 19 attempts since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The sudden closure of this popular social media channel between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m. on May 28 prompted a furious outcry from its users. Suspicions that the junta had a hand immediately spread in cyberspace.

     It was left to Winthai Suvaree, the NCPO's spokesman, to issue a swift denial of junta involvement, after Facebook was restored. Instead, the Council blamed the silence on a technical "glitch" because of heavy online usage. But local netizens only rolled their eyes, unconvinced. The following day's edition of the Bangkok Post, an English-language daily, suggested that the doubters were correct. "An industry source conceded that the NCPO yesterday ordered the shutdown of Facebook but declined to give further details," it reported.

     Stung by these criticisms over censorship, the junta has begun to lean on the more deft handlers of media at the foreign ministry to give the post-coup narrative a better spin. "Most terrestrial, satellite and cable television and radio stations have been able to resume normal broadcasting," Sek Wannamethee, foreign ministry spokesman, said at a press conference held to explain the rationale behind the coup. "Representatives of all TV channels have been called in to the NCPO to discuss coverage, (and) it is not the policy of the NCPO to close down social media."

     But inside the digital TV stations across the capital, the waiting continues for the junta's edicts to be lifted or eased in order to relay programs devised to launch the post-analogue broadcasting era. Some, such as the country's independent public broadcaster Thai PBS, conveyed their predicament by displaying the junta's multi-colored logo on the top of the screen, like all stations now on air, "as a form of accommodation to the NCPO's requests," as one insider called it.

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