Is Premier Surayud Chulanont really serious about the much trumpeted reform of the media?
If he had been dilly-dallying before, for whatever reason, the iTV debacle will no doubt compel him to cease humming and hawing and take a long-awaited plunge into a bold, comprehensive platform of media liberalisation.
Perhaps even his most trusted advisers don't have the guts to tell him some home truths at this critical juncture, but it's clear for all to see that this interim premier won't be able to claim much of a victory in the economic field during his brief tenure. Nor can Surayud hope to go down in history as a great reformer of Thai politics. But if this man, who has declared himself totally void of political ambition, does put his political will into it, a genuine package of media liberalisation and reform that places top priority on people's right to know and freedom of expression could underscore the real difference between him and his predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra.
In fact, if Surayud takes a major step toward liberalising the country's radio and television broadcasting in some concrete and sustainable form, he could even set himself apart from the negative image of the September 19 coup.
The coup-makers have been seen to be nervously fumbling in their handling of the media, dabbling in news blackouts and press censorship. But Surayud can move in the opposite direction by freeing up state media, legalising community radio and provincial cable TV, and taking advantage of new media technology to promote satellite TV, Internet and broadband broadcasting.
In other words, the premier could turn the iTV fiasco into a golden opportunity to launch a visionary liberalisation of the media.
Thaksin's scandalous exploitation of iTV and the deplorable dumbing-down of Thai television programmes in general makes it clear that there is no better time for the country's leaders to embrace the concept of public service broadcasting, or PSB - which, if managed properly, would fulfil the mission of broadcasting that is made for the public, financed by the public and controlled by the public.
iTV was created 10 years ago as the country's first privately-owned independent television station, following the disastrous 1992 May uprising. But it was never given a chance to prove that an independent TV station could serve as an effective balance against vested interests and government control. Thaksin took over iTV just before he won an overwhelming majority in the general election six years ago and turned it into his personal political tool. The rest is history.
The core of Surayud's media reform should be a scheme to turn the Public Relations Department's Channel 11 and iTV (now renamed "TITV") into public service broadcasting stations to ensure editorial independence and uncompromised public service orientation with direct accountability to, and support from, the public.
If the much-hyped political reform is to have any chance of success, an absolutely necessary pre-requisite must be a major overhaul of the country's media, so that the media becomes an indispensable democratic tool of a robust, pluralistic society. Without a liberalised media, people can't gain full access to all the information vital to their judgement on political, economic and social issues. And without an informed citizenry, democracy will suffer.
Global telecommunications are being deregulated in a big, exciting and irreversible way. National borders are disappearing fast because of satellite broadcasting and the Internet. I hope that Premier Surayud doesn't need convincing that in the new media landscape, the government, no matter how hard politicians may try, can no longer influence and control the flow of information - or the people's thinking.
But does that also imply it's easy to persuade this interim premier to give up control over state media? It's admittedly not an easy task, especially for a leader with a reputation for being a nice guy who wouldn't want to unnecessarily hurt anybody's feelings. To embark on genuine media liberalisation will not only hurt many people's feelings - especially those entrenched in bureaucracy who fight hard to maintain the status quo - it will also mean a serious dismantling of power bases of the Old Guard and attacking vested interests close to the powers-that-be. To achieve this historic mission, Surayud will have to exercise all the political will he can muster. He will have to come to the crucial realisation that the public expects him not only to be good, honest and trustworthy, but to get some difficult problems and crucial lingering issues resolved. Media reform could well be the only tangible area in which he can claim real victory - but only if he really puts his heart, soul and, most importantly, his will into it.
In the end, even if he can't boost his ratings by taking firm action in the highly complicated and controversial media field, Surayud should heed the words of a well-known BBC broadcaster who once defined the purpose of public service broadcasting as being "to make the good popular and the popular good".
Yes, a good prime minister should be able to make unpopular decisions, so that the good (television content) is made popular.