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05BANGKOK3522 COMMUNITY RADIO IN THAILAND: CRACKDOWN OR CROSSED SIGNALS?

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This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 003522

 

SIPDIS

 

SENSITIVE

 

DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, USPACOM FOR FPA HUSO

 

E.O. 12958: N/A

TAGS: PGOV PHUM KPAO TH

SUBJECT: COMMUNITY RADIO IN THAILAND: CRACKDOWN OR CROSSED

SIGNALS?

 

REF: 02 BANGKOK 7237

 

¶1. (U) SUMMARY: An estimated 2,000 (maybe 3,000)

unregistered community radio stations continue to broadcast

popular news and “call in” talk shows without a legal

regulatory framework. Appointment of a National Broadcasting

Commission (NBC) remains stalled in the Thai Senate.

Although the Royal Thai Government (RTG) air traffic control

agency has complained that some community radios are

interfering with aviation safety, recent government attempts

to enforce interim regulations on community radio stations

are regarded as intimidation by popular radio personalities

and Thai media freedom watchdogs. END SUMMARY.

 

 

BACKGROUND ON COMMUNITY RADIO IN THAILAND

 

¶2. (U) The current legal basis for community radio in

Thailand is the 1997 reformist Constitution, which, under

Section 40, states, “Transmission frequencies for radio or

television broadcasting and radio telecommunication are

national communication resources for public interest.” The

Constitution calls for the establishment of an “independent

regulatory body” to distribute these frequencies for “utmost

public benefit”. In late 2004, the Thaksin administration

submitted a list of 14 nominees for a proposed National

Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to the appropriate Thai Senate

subcommittee for vetting. That subcommittee is tasked with

selecting 7 committee members from the 14 nominees for

further processing, but its consideration of the list is

still pending. The Thaksin government previously submitted a

nominee list for the NBC in 2003. That list was rejected on

appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court due to a lack of

transparency in the selection process and claims of conflicts

of interest between nominees and members of the selection

committee which came up with the names. Senator Chirmsak

Pinthong recently told journalists that the selection process

for the names submitted by the Thaksin government was

tainted. He claimed that many of the nominees submitted both

times were not qualified to sit on a NBC regulatory body; he

reiterated claims of conflicts of interest amongst selection

panel members and NBC nominees.

 

A REGULATORY VACUUM

 

¶3. (U) Under interim regulations established by the Public

Relations Department (PRD) in March 2003, community radio

stations are allowed to continue “extra-legal” operations

until the proposed NBC enacts regulations. These interim

rules limit stations to 30 watts of power, a 30-meter antenna

and range of 15 to 18 kilometers. In January 2005, the PRD

issued an additional regulation allowing the stations to air

6 minutes of commercials a day. PRD officials have told

Embassy officers that there are approximately 1,793

registered community radio stations. This number includes 500

stations in the Community Radio Network, an alliance of

station managers formed to defend the rights of community

radio operators nationwide. But privately both the PRD and

NGOs admitted that the true total number of stations is

unknown. Estimates range from 2,000 to 3,000. (Note: The

RTG owns and controls 524 officially registered “regular” AM

and FM radio stations in the country. The military and

police services control 230 radio stations, PRD and the Mass

Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT) control over

170 stations combined. Nearly all of these stations are

leased to commercial companies. End Note.)

 

BUT MONEY TO BE MADE?

 

¶4. (U) Uajit Virojtrairatt, of the media watchdog group,

Civil Media Development Institute, stated in The Nation

newspaper on May 24 that some stations are making handsome

profits on untaxed commercial air time, claiming that one

station made up to 200,000 baht ($5,128) per month.

Meanwhile, Uajit noted, registered commercial radio stations

are complaining of declining advertising revenue as

businesses turned to cheaper airtime on community radio.

Because only government operated broadcast entities are

allowed to transmit paid advertising in Thailand, this newly

granted authority allowing community radio stations to sell

advertising time may have accelerated the rapid growth of the

medium in recent months, and prompted operators to stretch

the envelope of allowable frequencies and transmission power.

 

¶5. (U) Suranand Vejajiva, the media savvy Minister to the

Prime Minister’s Office and former spokesman for the Thai Rak

Thai (TRT) party, has been assigned the public relations

portfolio in Thaksin’s office. He reportedly ordered the

PRD to review all community radio stations operations to

ensure they are following the interim guidelines. Press

reports indicated that the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand

(Aerothai), the RTG-run air traffic control agency,

complained to Suranand that some community radio stations

broadcasts interfered with air traffic communications. On

May 25, the chairman of the Thai Parliament’s House

Telecommunication Subcommittee and TRT party list Member of

Parliament Suphap Khlikhachai confirmed to Embassy officers

that Aerothai had contacted his committee with similar

complaints. Suphap said Aerothai had provided him with a

letter stating that over 80 incidents of radio interference

had occurred since January, all in Northeast Thailand. Most

incidents occurred near an airport in Buriram province. No

claims of interference in Bangkok were stated in the letter.

 

POLICE PAY A VISIT TO COMMUNITY RADIO ICON

 

¶6. (SBU) Controversy over RTG regulation of an estimated

2,000 FM community radio stations came to public light the

week of May 18 when Royal Thai Police (RTP) “visited” the

broadcasting studio of a popular Bangkok radio host, Anchalee

Paireerak. Anchalee’s political programs, though not

virulently anti-government, are noted for their critical

analysis of the Thaksin administration. Anchalee confirmed

that police came to her station on May 18 and requested to

see the tower. They were turned away since they did not

possess a search warrant, and the owners of the building

decided not to let the police into the studio or to inspect

the tower on the rooftop. Poloff contacted Anchalee who

stated that the PRD has now ordered her station to lower its

broadcast antenna from atop the Thai Petrochemical Industry

(TPI) tower and to place it no more than 30 meters above the

ground by May 25. She reported that this would effectively

shut down the station on May 25 until technical arrangements

can be made. She said that the signal strength of the

station is no more than 30 watts and that the antenna itself

is not more than 30 meters long. However, since the

transmission tower sits atop a multi-story modern office

building, it is more than 30 meters above the ground.

Anchalee stated that she had attempted to confirm with

Aerothai if her station or other community radio stations

were interfering with air traffic signals but no one at

Aerothai would confirm such claims directly to her. She said

the response of most community radio operators was that the

RTG’s claim of radio interference with aviation was just a

ruse for a crackdown on radio stations critical of the

Thaksin government.

 

¶7. (SBU) Poloff also spoke with Supinya Klangnarong of the

NGO Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR). Supinya is the

defendant in a criminal and multimillion-dollar civil libel

lawsuit filed by Shinawatra Corporation (Shincorp), founded

by PM Thaksin and currently owned by members of his immediate

family. In 2003, Supinya had published a study claiming that

the PM’s net worth increased exponentially as a result of

Thaksin’s increased hold on power in the Thai Parliament

increased. Supinya stated she had spoken out recently in

public in support of Anchalee and others as she “could not

stand by and watch the government make excuses” to suppress

other critical voices. She said that even though her libel

trial is set to begin in 2 months time, she has a

responsibility to support others who face interference from

the RTG. She noted how surprised she was at the growth of

community radio, reflecting upon a time only 4 years ago when

one of the first stations opened in Kanchanaburi province.

By 2002, there were several hundred and now she stated that

no one knows for sure the real number nationwide but that it

could be up to 3,000. She dismissed claims of radio

interference with air traffic as baseless, noting that if

there were a real safety issue with aircraft communication,

especially with Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok,

the RTG, especially the military, would not wait so long to

shut down stations.

 

¶8. (SBU) COMMENT: The regulatory void that has allowed

community radio to flourish in the last few years has been a

mixed blessing. Industrious Thais have taken advantage of

the relatively “free market” of airwaves to fill them up with

hundreds of small locally run stations. They continue to

operate “under the radar” of the Government to some degree,

while offering a critical alternative to the voice of

RTG-controlled stations. The current spat over reported

interference with air traffic communications is part of a

larger battle to come over the establishment of the NBC.

Once that independent body is up and running and clearly in

charge, its directives will set the tone for the Thaksin II

administration’s commitment to freedom of the press for

community radio and all broadcast media. END COMMENT.

ARVIZU

Written by thaicables

August 28, 2011 at 6:16 am

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