Bangkok, Thailand – Thailand has one of the most vibrant community radio landscape in South East Asia with over 3,000 community radios throughout the country.
Article 14 of the 1997 Thai constitution provides for media freedom, including the allocation of frequencies for community media. Such provision was meant to infuse diversity in Thai media where radio and television stations are owned by the government, with some being leased to private companies. Ten years since the 1997 constitution, an independent frequency committee had yet to be established and a broadcasting law had yet to be adopted.
The committee and the law have yet to be seen, even with the current constitution, which was drafted months after the military take-over that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Moreover, the 20 per cent frequency allocation for community media faces the possibility of being further reduced.
PRB: Manufacturing Community Radios
In the absence of a governing body on community radio, the Public Relations Bureau (PRB) has taken on the task of regulating community radios across the country. As a rule, prospective community radios need to register with the PRB and pay license fees before operating. PRB allows their registered community radios to accept advertisements that may be run for a maximum period of six minutes within a one-hour programme.
The Civil Media Development Institute (CMDI) and its partner community radios question the nature of PRB, its role and rules. “They asked all community radios to register so they can have control. But we have to be an independent organisation. If you are going to be under a bureaucratic organisation, how can you be a community radio?,” Dr. Uajit Vitrojtrairatt, executive director of CMDI pointed out. “You can’t do that in a community radio because your work is supposed to be voluntary. The community must be the one supporting us and paying the electricity bills and so on. It must be the censor,” she added.
PRB now claims that more than 3,000 community radios have been established in Thailand in just three months. But this figure does not include the partners of CMDI which number about 300 and which have opted not to register with the PRB. These 300 community radios operate as pirates, whose claim for legitimacy is hinged on the media freedom provisions of the present constitution.
“We are all pirates. People often ask me whether what we do is against the law. I tell them, ‘Yes, it is against the law. We cannot occupy transmitters.’ But we refer to the constitution, that we have the freedom to use the airwaves,” shared Vitrojtrairatt, who also supervised the Media Monitor project which played a key role in the last parliamentary elections.
Cashing in on Community Radios
There is indeed more to be gained in media, including the supposedly unprofitable community radios, other than information. A concessionaire of an army-owned station has to pay 30 million Baht (US$894,031) upon contract signing and 2 million Baht (US$59,602) each month. It is for this reason that advertisements become inevitable in the sustainability of a registered community radio.
Asked where this huge money proceeds, Vitrojtrairatt could only point to the powers-that-be. “They say the money goes to the welfare or the general public. But actually the money goes to the generals, the high-ranking officers.” She shared that in the process of questioning the PRB’s authority, CMDI had been warned not to break the “rice pot of the military.”
Although CMDI and its partner community radios have been facing intimidation, none of them have been arrested. “Nobody was put in jail because we are fighting,” Virojtrairatt asserted.
The challenge for CMDI and bonafide community radios in the country not only lies in legislative lobbying and court cases. Apparently much more resources have to be invested in advocacy and education work.
The simultaneous operation of the pirate community radios and PRB-registered community radios has affected mainstream television transmitters on several occasions. Not much can also be appreciated in the diversity of content on the airwaves. Since the establishment of PRB-registered community radios, it is said that people have changed their attitude towards community radios: from one that looks forward to alternative news and information to one that is disappointed with lousy content. At one point, the pirate radios have been accused for interfering with radar transmitters, causing a plane crash.
Clearly, this development in Thai’s community radio landscape is more than a battle for the airwaves. It has become a struggle for intelligent public opinion and intervention.