Thai Media: A Challenge to Use Freedom for a Public Good
Nowadays the centrality of mass media to life in the 21st century is beyond any doubt. In nearly every part of the world people commonly recognize the social, political and cultural significance of television, radio, Internet and print media (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod & Larkin 1). The changes in the world media industry during a few last decades have been so fast and intensive that “observing it is like observing a bullet train in motion – we all know it is going very fast, heading somewhere, but that is about all” (Wang & Servaes 1).
In particular, computerization has had an enormous impact in many areas of the mass media. In the 1990s the Internet eventually brought about the much predicted data revolution for the media (Tunstall 227). Such rush resulted in continual growing of influence of media upon all the aspects of both the national and international development. Thai mass media have not stood apart of this process. During the late 1980s Thailand was the world’s fastest growing economy, and now it is one of the major nations of Southeast Asia (McCargo, “Political Journalists” 92). It is recognized in scholarly literature that Thai media contributed much to this success. Few countries in the world have media as vibrant and energetic as Thailand’s (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 1). Besides, Thailand was among the first of the Asian nations to embrace new media – first film and radio, then television – as integral aspects of national development (Hamilton 153).
The purpose of this study is to explore what effect Thai mass media have on Thai society, government and the process of globalization. Toward this end we will analyze the main features of modern Thai mass media and their functions in the society, consider their contribution to formation of public opinion, scrutinize the degree of state regulation of them and how much influence they have on the actions of government, examine how Thai media employ the advantages of globalization, and make the conclusions as to what reforms in Thai media industry are necessary to enhance all these interactions.
Brief Overview of Thai Media Industry
As it was mentioned above, the media in Thailand take active part in all aspects of development of Thai civil society. They are among the most dynamic elements in this process. Although the electronic media remain subject to considerable state control, the print media occupy a great political space (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod ; Larkin 18). Newspapers report freely and comment critically on all aspects of politics, they are constantly monitoring and checking the power of both elected politicians and unelected officials (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 2). Thus, print media possess the most freedom in expressing their own points of view. Researches admit that no other ASEAN country apart from the Philippines permitted the existence of such a lively, critical, and highly independent press (Hamilton 167). While the mass media in Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, Malaysia and Singapore were controlled by authoritarian regimes through formal and informal mechanisms of censorship, unlike its counterparts in most of Southeast Asia, the Thai press has largely secured the right to say what it likes (McCargo, “Media and Politics” 5).
It is necessary to mention here that traditionally Thai newspapers have been regarded as platforms for giving publicity to the political views of their owners. Politicians have typically developed close personal ties to editors of the media outlets and columnists in order to further their own objectives (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 138). In recent years, the character of some Thai newspapers has changed. While old-style newspapers such as Thai Rath and Daily News stay private family businesses, newspapers such as Matichon, Phujatkan and Siam Post are part of larger corporate entities. Now Thai newspapers are essentially independent political actors, with considerable autonomy to implement their own news editorial policies (McCargo, “Media and Politics” 117).
Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of newspaper readers read Thai language newspapers. The two major English language dailies (Bangkok Post and The Nation) have circulations of only around 60,000 each. By contrast, the best-selling Thai language daily Thai Rath sells around 700,000 in ordinary days and over a 1 million on the twice-monthly lottery days (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 31); its rivals Daily News and Khao Sot sell in the region of 400,000 and 160,000 respectively, whilst Matichon sells around 120,000. Other politically important newspapers include Phujatkan with 70,000 and Siam Post with 60,000 (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 82). Nevertheless, circulation figures are often inflated; the total daily sales of newspapers are most likely less than two million. At the same time, each copy of a printed media outlet generally passes through a number of hands, particularly in rural areas, where the main dailies are often available in village reading shelters (McCargo, “Political journalists” 93).
Today’s Thai media are multi-layered and differentiated, increasingly independent, organizationally smart, technologically sophisticated and capable of reaching the remotest areas. Some of them operate in comprehensive forms, through radio and television, apart from the print media (Kitley 4). Increasingly, more of them get their funds from the stock market (Tunstall 235). Being now freer than ever, today’s Thai media have trespassed into other business domains such as real estate and property development (Lewis 62). Accordingly, a truly national media have been established only during the last decades, somewhat in parallel with Thailand’s ongoing economic boom, democratizing society and advancing information and communication technologies (Connors 214).
At the same time many top-selling print media are characterized by ‘yellow journalism’ and decorate their front pages with bloody pictures of accident or murder victims. Nevertheless, even the down-market newspapers have unexpectedly comprehensive political coverage, and politicians are particularly warrying about the way their public work is described in top-selling publications (McCargo, “Political journalists” 94) such as Thai Rath and other influential media. It means that Thai media occupy a very important place in the nation’s life.
Effect of Thai Media on the Society
It is commonly recognized that the more independent media with greater freedom are in the country the more they will contribute to political and social changes, to backing democratic transitions and overthrowing of authoritarian regimes. Thus, the media are regarded as a crucial agent of change (McCargo, “Media and Politics” 19). That is why the role of media in the struggle for a civil society in Thailand, the only nation in Asia that had not been subjected to formal colonial control (Hamilton 152), is difficult to overestimate. As such, the media can play a variety of roles, some of which support processes of democratic transition and consolidation of the society, and some of which do just the opposite (Thomas 249). McCargo argues that the media have three key roles in the society: “conservative roles as supporters of the status quo (agents of stability); progressive roles as monitors dedicated to ‘checking and balancing’ the established order (agents of restraint); and transformative roles as protagonists at moments of transition (agents of change) (“Media and Politics” 153).
Accordingly, as an integral part of a developing society, nation and state, the Thai media play an important role and help in managing the nation in all its complexity through the dissemination of news, opinions, ideas and hopes to the public. Namely in this respect Thai media “have a role to play in helping to build and preserve the unity and cohesion of the nation” (McCargo, “Media and Politics” 3).
Despite of visible progress gained by Thai media in getting the credibility from the public, involving it in building civil society, they have some shortcomings. One of them is the bias towards the gathering of quotations from well-known persons in public life and the political world. The majority of political news consist of a number of such quotations lacking any analysis, comments or explanations from the author. The cause of this shortcoming lies in the news-gathering system when reporters regard accumulation of opinions as an analogue to news (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 2).
Besides, researches admit that, by Western standards, the notion of objectivity, except in special circumstances, has been almost foreign to the Thai mass media in general (Connors 2). Nevertheless, within the context of information flow, Thai media have been the primary source to mirror and lead the certain public opinion. For example, some scholars and political observes argue that the students’ revolt of October 1973 would not have succeeded without supporting mass media coverage (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 9).
Another shortcoming of the Thai news media is their Bangkok focus. The division of editorial departments into desks proves this. Characteristically, Thai newspapers have desks for types of news such as crime, politics, business, foreign news, sport, women, environment and entertainment. In addition to these, they have a separate desk for provincial news. Any news story which happen beyond Bangkok is first of all a provincial story; and just in a secondary meaning it is regarded as a crime or political story, or some else. Provincial news is generally brought down to special pages designated for such news, most of which is very routine in their core. Most Bangkok-based reporters do not like travelling to provincial areas and experience difficulty in obtaining news stories there. For them, important events are those which occur in the capital, or at least those involving national-level events (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 4).
In spite of these shortcomings the scholars argue that the mass media together with economic forces and the state are now the elements which constitute the basement of sustainable development of Thai civil society (Hamilton 166). Thus, Thai case allows us to consider how a carefully controlled and constructed national media environment could strengthen media’s role in the nation-building (Lewis 65).
The Political Functions of Thai Media
It was mentioned above that the Thai media are one of the freest and most outspoken in Pacific Asia. In particular, the Thai-language press frequently engages in antagonistic exchanges with political authorities, and they have often been credited with making contributions to major upheavals. For example, the press was involved in the downfall of the Democrat-led government coalition over a land-reform scandal in May 1995 and played important roles in the demise of two subsequent governments (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 167). The Thai press also proved its character in the political crisis of May 1992, when strong pressure from the print media was an important factor in driving the unpopular Suchinda government from office (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 12).
Whereas in most other Southeast Asian countries the media is largely subordinate to state power, in Thailand relationships between the media and power-holders are vastly more ambiguous, and the issues involved more complex and subtle (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 2). The apparatus of political news-gathering, focused on key institutions such as Government House, parliament and the major ministries, often serves the interests of the state (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 3). Prominent newspaper columnists who write highly opinionated critical pieces are often very influential. Close personal connections, sometimes financial ones, exist between newspaper owners, editors, columnists and reporters, on the one hand, and their counterparts in the political world, on the other (McCargo, “Political journalists” 92).
Those who established or purchased newspapers typically did so in order to secure power and influence for themselves as the Thai media have traditionally been partisan in their nature (McCargo, “Political Journalists” 92). While the leading newspapers Thai Rath and Daily News remain family concerns, other press outlets are typically owned by companies in which their founders retain a significant or controlling interest. Even a loss-making newspaper may bring financial or personal benefits to its owners in Thailand. Some owners have used the business pages of their newspapers to talk up companies in which they held shares, while others have backed particular politicians or prominent figures and been rewarded in other spheres. There is considerable pluralism in the Thai media system, and a fair diversity of views. At the same time, the lack of clear ideological debates and party platforms in the Thai context limits much of the quality of discourse in the public sphere (McCargo, “Political Journalists” 93).
Accordingly, although the mass media have no enough power to make or break governments, but their attention is increasingly important in determining things of significance in Thai politics (Dixon 68). For example, many political observers have described May 1992 as the Thai print media’s triumphal hour. Faced with the government which controlled parliament, the military, the bureaucratic apparatus and the electronic media, the press joined forces with opposition parties and protest groups and succeeded in affecting public faith in the credibility of the leader of the government and forcing out the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 51). Not without reason the best-selling Thai Rath sometimes is referred to as a “second government” (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 2).
These facts prove that the media can play an important role in informing the public about political developments, or in tipping the balance of popular opinion. On occasion, as in May 1992, this role may correspond closely with that of an advocate of the public interest. At other times, as in May 1995, it may more reflect the partisan interests of elements of the press themselves (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 167).
At the same time, while the Constitution of 1991 stipulated for freedom of the press, the government has undertaken some actions to limit this freedom. The National Police Department has the powers to cancel publishing licenses of the media on the basis of national security. Thai authorities and military possess and manage most of the television channels and many radio stations (McCargo, “Media and Politics” 5). The Thai Journalists Association reports that the media and certain journalists whose views do not coincide with the government’s position. Besides, the place of Thailand’s in the Press Freedom Index issuing regularly by Reporters Without Borders has declined noticeably since 2004 (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 51).
This can be explained by the fact that for the media to take political position different from that of important power-holders is a risky business. The media can do this only if they have strong backing. For example, when Chatichai Choonavan was dismissed by the National Peace-Keeping Council (NPKC) in the 1991 military coup, Sondhi Limthongkul possessing the Phujatkan media group, used his newspapers to attack and undermine the NPKC’s credibility. He did so with the unspoken consent of Chatichai, and with the active backing of a group of people related to the Chatichai government (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 6). Only a few newspapers such as Thai Rath and Matichon were able to co-operate pragmatically with governments of different varieties (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 7).
Summing up, tt is evident that the Thai media have enough strenght to influence on the actions of the government and to form the certain public opinion about them. Having been a power elite medium in the past, recently they are able and willing to break down the barriers and to enlarge the size of the politically engaged and informed class of the Thai society (McCargo, “Politics and the Press” 7).
Thai Media in the Context of Globalization
While, as we discussed earlier, Thai media play the important role in developing civil society and in providing checks and balances for the actions and policies by the government, the wealth generated by the Thailand’s economic growth in the late 1980s to the early 1990s and the process of globalization conditioned on the rapid commercialization and the industrialization of the Thai media industry (Sitiyuvasak 97). The open space in the Thai social system since 1992 appeared to be an open arena contributing to the empowerment of the masses and the expansion of a civil society. Media industry enjoying the economic freedom and envolved in the process of economic growth and socio-political transition in Thailand was also subjected to the trends characteristic for globalization (Sitiyuvasak 121). Driven by a mixture of political and economic influences, globalization actually includes a much wider and more complex area as it is transforming the very social institutions in which people’s lives are developing. It is true even for those who live in the poorest countries. Furthermore, as today’s world of immediate electronic communication is very much responsible for the intensity and acceleration of globalization (Nedpogaeo 106), mass media have a very important role in dissemination of information all over the globe. The electronic media are the most appropriate for this purpose, hence, Thai national television systems are caught up in global trends such as market deregulation and liberalisation, service diversification, rollout of broadband cable and satellite delivery, and the trend towards internationalisation of television formats and programming (Philip Kitley 5).
Many people are afraid that the stream of globalization will finally cancel the cultural differences and create one gigantic and monolithic global culture (Lewis 68), and the function of the media here is to overcome such anxiety. Taking into account that globalization is a two-way process, the media have to promote the preservation of cultural identities and cultural diversity, without destroying the positive factors of globalization. Hence, mass media are capable to play a large part in informing and educating the public within the context of globalization (Kitley 26).
Deployment of communications satellites and computer networks in the early 1990s led to emergence of a new generation of communications technology which not only undermined geographical distances but also national borders and launched the era of global communications (Lie & Servaes 310). This resulted in such processes as the transnationalization and globalization of the national mass media (Wang & Servaes 2). Thai media are actively involved in this process too. Aware of the key role played by the media in increasing the awareness of people, promoting freedom of expression, ensuring free flow of information and ideas, maintaining diversity and empowering communities, they provide positive feedback for the events related to the process of globalizing Thai economy and society, make efforts to support the public interest to it and facilitate people’s participation in it (Wang & Servaes 15).
The conducted study proved that since 1992, Thai media’s role has been dynamic and increasingly significant, making it worthy of investigation for a more complete understanding of Thailand’s politics, public interest and advantages of globalization. Thai media have reached their present eminent position in a relatively short time, tracing the transformation of their role from servants of the state to political watchdogs and the implications of this for the broader society.
At the same time, for all its freedom of expression, vitality, strengths and remarkable achievements, the Thai press remains constrained by a number of factors from acting as a fully effective force for political, economical and social change. In part, these shortcomings reflect structural problems within Thailand’s state and society. But another set of shortcomings reflect failures the national media to adapt to changing political conditions and to the challenges of globalization.
Thus, the reform is needed in Thai media industry which could include the following measures:
1. Thai media have to take efforts to shift from the focusing on Bangkok news coverage to development of nation-wide print and electronic media and removing the provincial news notion. This will allow to reach the minds of people in all corners of the country and consolidate them.
2. The media have to pay more attention to commenting, analyzing and explainining of news and to escape just quoting power-holders, officials and well-known persons. This gives an opportunity for people to understand the policies of the government, encourage their tolerance and permits to maintain positive public opinion about the actions of the authorities.
3. Instead of passively monitoring the authorities’ actions, the media have to devote more time and efforts to searching the news important for the public and for the development of civil society. This can lead to positive impact on the people’s awareness and encourage their participation in all aspects of nation-building.
4. Thai media have to become the scene for wide public dialogue, knowledge exchange, dissemination of new values of globalization era and national consent.
These measures in synergy could work for the public good in economical, political and social aspects and contribute to the consolidation of Thai society. Anyway, in a nation where dictators governed in recent memory, it is hopeful to see that substantial progress have been made by Thai media in gaining influence and credibility in the Thai society. Thai currently free and brave mass media reached that not without restraints, and now they have to remove their shortcomings and strengthen their advantages to work better for the public good.
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