If you watched iTV in Thailand this week, you could be forgiven for thinking a national tragedy had occurred. You'll be greeted with waves of crying faces, mourning morning presenters (see what I did there?) and various other forms of grief.
But I'm glad to say there has been no national tragedy and no wave of despair gripping the nation. Although the grief is real - it is the faces of innocent people who have quite possibly lost their job - the reason is not heartbreaking although it is most certainly interesting. It's the end of Thailand's only independent TV station.
iTV was created in the aftermath of the events in 1992 and the much vaunted constitution drawn up thereafter. The inspiration was to establish a truly independent media outlet as a sign of flourishing democracy. Alongside the iTV formation was the establishment of a watchdog entitled the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) to oversee fair play. Sadly, no sooner had the announcement taken place than big names in the telecoms sector began lobbying for a place on the NTC. So blatant was the conflict of interests in the first selection draft that the constitutional court declared it invalid. However, many of the same names appeared on the second draft and the selection cruised through the already infiltrated senate.
Still, iTV received a good reception in first few months on air and some genuinely challenging, analytical and even critical programmes appeared to offer a change to the usual Thai soap operas.
Then along came your friend and mine, Thaksin Shiniwat.
In hindsight, the opportunity was all too easy. iTV was struggling financially and major shareholder SCB (Siam Commercial Bank) was looking to dilute some of its interest. Although other groups showed interest, Shin Corp quickly snapped up 39 percent of stock for the sum of 1,600 million baht. So began a very telling series of evens. First, the ruling Thai Rak Thai party (headed by Thaksin) objected to the Nation Group's programming content. The Nation Group were responsile for all news coverage on iTV, they were a group known for staunch support of press freedom and impartial reporting and as such represented a clear avenue for critical analysis of eh government. So iTV - now headed by Thaksin's business, Shin Corp, - dismissed a large number of reporters and presenters for being critical of the ruling party which, of course, was also headed by Thaksin. Can you say "Conflict of interest"? Apparently none of the so called watchdogs could.
Still as strange as things seemed they were about to get stranger. At the request of iTV (don't forget now, they are owned by the Thaksin family!) the government (headed by .......can you remember?) appointed an ombudsman to make some decisions regarding iTV. First, the ombudsman decided that iTV's concession fee to the government should be massively reduced from 44 percent to 6.5 percent. If you've been paying even miniscule attention, you can probably work out were all those savings for iTV would have been headed. The second decision from the ombudsman was that iTV should reduce the amount of news and documentary programmes from seventy to fifty percent and should screen more "entertainment " (read: brain dead , poorly acted and poorly produced soap operas) during prime time. The ombudsman also gave control over broadcast content to the government office, seemingly safeguarding the government interests.
Shortly after this decision, iTV announced that it was to increase its stock market offerings. Some people got either very rich or even richer than they were before.
The fact that events reached this phase without resistance was indicative of had young Thailand's democracy was. The NTC - a group required by the constitution - was dominated by businessmen. The senate was no longer impartial, and not one single jurisdiction or watchdog had the integrity to object to independent media being bought out and ruined by the government.
Things stayed this way for some time. Then came the coup. It didn't take long for the new government office to decide that iTV's reduced concession order had been unlawful.iTV were ordered to pay back payments to the rippling sum of over one hundred billion baht.The deadline was eventally extended to midnight tonight (Tuesday 6th March) but it could have been 2020 for all it mattered, the sum was well beyond the means of iTV.
iTV has understandably applied every stalling tactic in the book. Requesting injunctions from every court, making public pleas for sympathy and trying its best to look like an innocent victim of corporate bullying. Nothing has worked. And so it came down to the desperate propaganda piece you can see on your iTV right now. I feel sorry for these people on two accounts, firstly they are everyday people who had no control over the takeover and have probably lost their jobs, secondly they are being used as propaganda by the people who are the true perpetrators of this mess, the iTV management who allowed the takeover and gleefully snapped up the concessions savings. Sadly , the biggest crook of all (you know who) will not suffer as Shin Corp sold themselves to Tamesak of Singapore about one year ago.
What is the future? iTV have made one last court plea but it looks unlikely to help. The government has promised that TV can continue to exist with full staffing - but not broadcast - after tonight and some groups are talking about a new independent TV station. The problem is, what is to stop a new station being compromised in the same way? The real future lies with the junta and the next government. If they are truly willing to allow a free press, they can give permission to a new iTV protected by the new constitution. What seems more likely is that a new TV station will be labelled independent but controlled by the military.
I hope I'm wrong. A critical TV station is the sign of a healthy democracy. It can send out positive messages to other countries and broaden the horizons of its own people. Sadly , the biggest crook of all (you know who) will not suffer as Shin Corp sold themselves to Tamesak of Singapore about one year ago.
Sadly , the biggest crook of all (you know who) will not suffer as Shin Corp sold themselves to Tamesak of Singapore about one year ago. Thais deserve independent media, but will they get it?