Free media amplifies Thai protests
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - On first impression, Thailand's mounting political crisis appears to be an attempt by one group to shape the future of democracy in a kingdom that over its modern history has witnessed 18 military coups. But the anger that drives a protest movement, now encamped around Government House, to topple an elected administration has simultaneously pitted it against the country's old, state-controlled media order.
Asia Satellite Television (ASTV) makes little effort to hide its political mission as the around-the-clock live broadcaster of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement and the station's coverage has added political potency to its anti-government charge. The station has in recent days carried footage of aggressive police attempts to dismantle a PAD stage and the violence between pro- and anti-government groups earlier this week which resulted in one death and dozens of injuries.
When Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the wake of those clashes, army commander Anupong Paochinda had the legal authority to close down the station if its content was considered inciting unrest. PAD protestors armed with golf clubs and sticks built barricades out of tires on Tuesday evening in an attempt to block a possible army raid on the station's headquarters in Bangkok's riverside Pra Athit area. Until now, however, the military has not intervened in the stations operations.
ASTV's owner and founder, Sondhi Limthongkul, a fiery orator, is one of the PAD's co-leaders. His sustained attacks on the government and the state of Thai democracy, including charges that the prevailing election-based system does not work and that the country would be better served by a largely appointed parliament, have resonated with the thousands drawn to the PAD rallies who first heard the controversial claims made on ASTV.
The upstart ASTV is a new entrant into Thailand's tightly controlled broadcast media industry, which is dominated by state-owned, commercially oriented TV stations that generally offer a staple of light talk shows, soap operas and gossip programs. News programs carried over the same channels are traditionally tightly managed affairs and consistently present the sitting government in a favorable light.
That monopoly has been directly challenged in the escalating conflict. PAD protestors, some reportedly armed with guns, stormed and temporarily closed down on August 26 the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT) television news station, which is managed and run by the Prime Minister's Office and widely viewed as a state mouthpiece. Other mainstream television station reporters, including from Channel 3, have recently been threatened and harassed at PAD rallies.
Still, ASTV's audience is proliferating, particularly among urban-based, middle-aged and elderly Thais. Two sisters in their late 50s are among a growing legion of avowed ASTV devotees who are sympathetic to the PAD's anti-government backlash.
"Those stations offer little of the kind of programs that we want to see - about politics in Thailand, corruption, how the government is abusing its power," says Hui-Leng, the younger of the two Thai-Chinese sisters, referring to government-owned TV stations that have long dominated Thailand's airwaves, including Channels 3 and 7. Together those two Thai-language stations, both run by concessionaries, enjoy a 60% share of the country's television market.
"We want to know more of the truth that is happening in our country; we want to know about the cases against this government," added Hui-Leng, a Bangkok resident, as she sat before a television tuned to ASTV. "You cannot get this information on other channels."
Since late May, ASTV's programs have consisted mainly of PAD speeches beamed from stages set up at revolving sites around Bangkok. The made-for-television rallies have heaped criticism on the government led by Samak, who was elected under a People's Power Party banner at December general elections. The protest group has accused Samak of serving as a proxy of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now is a fugitive from justice in Britain.
Apart from allegations of corruption and abuse of power, Samak's administration is accused by the PAD of being unpatriotic and disloyal to the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
"Our entire programming is now totally dedicated to what is being said at the PAD rallies," says Chadaporn Lin, managing editor of the station's English-language channel. "It appeals to our viewers, even if the material is strong, subjective and biased. The speeches about corruption and the abuse of power are things the public will not get on other commercial TV stations."
Mixed with the speeches is material the station's 15 teams of reporters produce from the PAD's new command center, the Office of the Prime Minister, which anti-government protesters overran on August 26 in an unprecedented show of civil disobedience. Some reports have included threats to the PAD protesters, which, when relayed over the station, has recently resulted in more PAD sympathizers pouring into Government House.
Much of this mobilization is possible due to ASTV's national reach, which is currently estimated at 20 million viewers, Chadaporn said in an interview. "Our audience has doubled since 2006, when we had 10 million viewers, because we present the political side of the news that is not available on national TV."
The station's growing audience is also evident in the number of ASTV's signature yellow satellite dishes mushrooming on the roofs and balconies of houses and apartment buildings in Bangkok and other provinces. In Bangkok alone, the station has sold 200,000 satellite dishes, one-fifth of the estimated 1 million satellite dishes sold across the country by True Vision, the country's main cable company.
If viewers cannot access the station through a satellite dish or a provincial cable company, the Internet offers another channel. The website of The Manager, the newspaper produced by ASTV's parent company, has seen the number of regular visitors rise dramatically. It is currently placed third among the top 10 Thai-language websites, according to a website that monitors Internet traffic. All but one of the other nine websites focuses on games, music, teenage interests and dating.
ASTV has been credited with nudging Thailand towards the growing global technological trend of information flows via satellite broadcast. "ASTV has helped to accelerate the move towards satellite-based TV, as opposed to the older free-to-air TV," said Laurent Malespine, a Thai media analyst. "It is challenging the old media order in the country."
Through its free-wheeling and sometimes controversial content, the station is also winning praise for expanding the space for free expression. ''ASTV is offering knowledge and political information and new ideas that have never been seen on Thai TV," says Supinya Klangnarong, deputy head of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, an independent local group lobbying for media rights. ''They have opened a new space for TV. There is 100% media freedom. You can say anything against the elected government and get away [with it].''
ASTV has tapped into an older viewership that has often been overlooked by existing commercial stations, where youth is often the target audience. It is also creating a following that could become increasingly intolerant, Supinya warned. "They are creating a culture of hate by the one-sided opinions being broadcast. They are promoting very conservative and very nationalistic ideas."
"And if it attracts more people, ASTV may take over the role that has always been played by Thai newspapers of setting the political agenda for the country," added the 35-year-old activist, who was a PAD co-leader in its previous incarnation in 2005 and 2006 when it targeted former premier Thaksin. "That will be a win for those who say that Thailand has become too liberal, open and globalized ... like my mother's generation."
(Inter Press Service with additions and reporting by Asia Times Online)