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Cablegate: Media Freedom in Community Radio: A View of Northern

VZCZCXRO2183
RR RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHBK #6296/01 3651030
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 311030Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK
TO RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI 4624
RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1263
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 006296

SIPDIS

DEPT PLEASE PASS EAP/PD, EAP/MLS, DRL
PACOM FOR FPA

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PREL PGOV KPAO TH
SUBJECT: MEDIA FREEDOM IN COMMUNITY RADIO: A VIEW OF NORTHERN
THAILAND

REFS: (A) BANGKOK 5325

(B) 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Thailand

BANGKOK 00006296 001.2 OF 003


Summary
-------

1. (SBU) On December 12-13, AIO and LES Specialist visited community
radio stations in the northern region of Thailand. Community radio
members with whom we met expressed concern over the current
operating environment, but indicated that not much had changed
between the Thaksin and post-Thaksin era. Community radio continues
to operate in a legal void and until legislation is established that
will sanction its operation, pressure to stifle and control these
community-based voices is unlikely to end. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Background: Prior to the September 2006 coup, the basis for
community radio in Thailand was found in Article 40 of the 1997
Constitution, which stated that the transmission frequencies for
radio and broadcast television were national communication resources
to be used in the "public interest." The now defunct constitution
also called for the creation of an "independent regulatory body,"
the National Broadcast Commission (NBC), to distribute these
frequencies for the public benefit. Appointment of the NBC remained
stalled for years due to political infighting (at the time of the
2006 coup there was still no NBC) and community radio was forced to
operate outside the law. The Public Relations Department (PRD)
established interim regulations in 2003 allowing community radio
stations to continue "extra legal" operations, though limiting them
to 30 watts of power, a 30-meter antenna and a broadcast range of 15
to 18 kilometers. (Note: Despite this regulation, during a November
visit to a community radio station, Poloff was told that many
stations "disregard" the 30-meter rule. End note.)

3. (SBU) Background Continued: With the abrogation of the 1997
constitution following the coup last year, the estimated 2,000-3,000
community radio stations in Thailand now operate within an even more
precarious legal void than before. In the immediate aftermath of
the coup, the military government shutdown community radio stations
across the country under the guise of national security. Within a
few weeks, most of these stations were allowed to resume operating.
In July 2007, the cabinet approved the draft Radio and Television
Broadcasting Bill that, once enacted, will provide a mechanism under
which community radio stations can operate legally (Ref A); however,
under the current situation, community radio stations continue to
operate with little, if any, protection or support from the
government. End background.

Censorship? Just "Stick to the Guidelines"
-------------------------------------------

4. (SBU) On December 12, AIO and LES Specialist met with a group of
16 community radio operators and staff in rural Chiang Dao, about 75
kilometers outside Chiang Mai. The group met at the simple, yet
expansive compound of community radio FM 105.25 where the station
broadcasts out of a small, sparsely furnished room. In addition to
the radio control room, the compound contains an open air meeting
area, library, kitchen, and stage where the group puts on community
education performances. The station, which is wholly community
administered and funded, has a monthly operating budget of 2,000
baht and broadcasts from 8:30am-5:00pm daily except Sundays.
Programming focuses on issues of particular concern to this
agricultural community, including resource and environmental
management (e.g. water and land rights).

5. (SBU) The participants discussed concerns about the current
operating environment for community radio stations in the north of
Thailand for two hours, in lively discussion. Most agreed that
there was little difference "legally speaking" between the Thaksin
and post-Thaksin regimes, since under both governments, community
radio was considered illegitimate. (Note: This sentiment was brought
home during AIO's visit to government-run Radio Thailand, where a
staff member retorted, "They are all illegal," when told we were
visiting community radio stations the next day. End note). A young
woman who recently launched a community radio station in the area
commented that she believed things were worse under Thaksin because,
"we had a dictatorship disguised as democracy." A second individual
disagreed, saying he thought the situation was worse now. He
commented that the military government was increasingly trying to
control them, pressuring community radio stations to sign operating
guidelines that provide little freedom in programming.

6. (SBU) When asked about censorship, the station manager from
Community Radio Huay Sai replied, "No, we are not censored. As long
as we stick to [the military's] guidelines, we have no problems."
(Note: Our interlocutors were either unable or unwilling to provide

BANGKOK 00006296 002.2 OF 003


specifics, commenting only that the guidelines contain language
like, "Don't criticize the government." "Don't talk about
controversial issues." "Don't broadcast in local languages." End
note.) Despite continued pressure from the government, our
interlocutors indicated that they continue to air programs on
relatively sensitive issues (i.e. water rights, corruption, etc.)
and broadcast in local languages with little repercussion from the
military. None were aware of stations being taken off the air in
recent months for overstepping the guidelines, though they did
indicate that many of them had received "warning" visits from
military and local authorities. All present did say that they
looked forward to the elections and hoped the next,
democratically-elected government would create a better situation
for community radio.

Fake Official Issues (Fake) Order
---------------------------------

7. (SBU) A contact at FM 99.00 Community Radio based in Chiang Mai
told ConGen staff on December 20 that there had been two recent
Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) orders to close down two
community radio stations in Chiang Mai, one six months ago and
another three months ago, on the grounds they violated the
regulations prohibiting non-Thai language broadcasts. (Note: ISOC
is the unit of the Thai military responsible for national security
issues. End note.) However, he could not specify the names of the
affected stations. Recently, he said, there was a case in Chiang
Mai's Doi Tao district where a man claiming to be an ISOC official
ordered a Karen-language community radio station to close down.
When the station operators and a group of ethnic Karen appealed the
order, they found it was fake and meant to extort money from the
station (the impostor ISOC official expected to be paid to negotiate
the removal of the order).

8. (SBU) The same contact noted that ISOC has been monitoring all
community radio stations for security reasons, particularly
targeting those considered to be pro-Thaksin. He claimed his own
station has never had any problems with ISOC because ISOC is
well-aware of his anti-Thaksin stance and the fact that his staff
effectively runs ethnic/tribal language programs. (Note:
Programming in ethnic languages itself is not prohibited, as long as
the foreign language content is either translated into Thai or
summarized in Thai. End note.) He recalled that two community
stations were ordered to close permanently after the coup because
they were deemed to be pro-Thaksin. Others that were politically
neutral, he said, have been allowed to resume broadcasting since the
initial order to shut down. (Note: Soon after the coup, local
branches of the PRD asked hundreds of community radio stations in
the North and Northeast to cease broadcasting. The army claimed
that the stations were too difficult to monitor to ensure that they
were not broadcasting pro-Thaksin information. Within two weeks,
most of these stations had permission to resume operating. (Ref B)
End note.)

The New Broadcast Bill: Say What?
---------------------------------

9. (SBU) During the December 12 discussion with community radio
members in Chiang Dao, most of the group admitted that they knew
little about the draft Radio and Television Broadcasting Bill. The
group's leader and trip facilitator, Punnaporn Paiboonwattanakit of
the Network of People's Media of the North, outlined some aspects of
the bill for the group, stating that she believed the most positive
aspect of the bill was that it would finally provide a legal
framework for community radio. However, she said that the new
regulatory system would also open the door to increased competition
from well-funded, commercial organizations and foundations that
would be allowed to apply for community radio licenses. She said
she feared these stations, which she believed would program
according to their commercial interests not those of the community,
would squeeze out "true" community-based radio stations. Many in
the group indicated that increased competition was already an issue
and that they were finding it difficult to maintain listernership in
the face of the spread of popular music stations.

Strong Community Makes Strong Radio
-----------------------------------

10. (SBU) Later on December 12, AIO and LES specialists met with a
dozen members from community radio stations in Vieng Hang district,
a minority Shan area located 20 kilometers from the Burmese border.
The group was hosted by FM 89.00, a relatively new, yet
well-supported community radio station co-located on the grounds of
the community wat (Buddhist temple). The wat abbot and station
manager, Phra Samuthani Thitawiriyo, swathed in his saffron robe,

BANGKOK 00006296 003.2 OF 003


shared with the group a powerpoint presentation that outlined the
basis for a good community radio station ("Comes from the people and
is for the people," "Remains neutral," and "Behaves ethically"). He
commented on the station's programming, which included reports on
the negative aspects of a proposed power plant project in the area,
corruption among local officials, and other politically sensitive
issues. He also revealed that his station continued to disregard
the ISOC Region 3 order issued following the coup prohibiting
community radio stations from broadcasting in local (minority)
languages. (Note: Again, none of the participants in this exchange
were aware of stations being removed from the air recently, be it
for reporting on politically sensitive issues or ignoring the
standing order not to broadcast in local languages. End note.)

11. (SBU) Following the presentation, there was a lengthy exchange
of information between the attendees, many of whom had never met
before. One community radio member from Mae Ping asked how FM 89.00
was able to criticize local authorities without retaliation, to
which the station director replied they had strong support from the
community and village chief, who served as a buffer between the
station and the authorities. The village chief called himself the
"black horse" among the city officials for protecting the station
and indicated that he had received significant pressure to control
the station, but did not act on it. The meeting closed with an
exchange of gifts and a commitment by the group to continue this
collaboration with the future goal of establishing a community radio
learning center in Vieng Hang to help development and strengthen
community radio stations in the area.

Comment
-------

12. (SBU) For rural populations in the north and throughout
Thailand, community radio has provided a much-needed alternative to
the some 500 plus RTG-controlled radio stations in the country.
Despite occasional efforts to stifle the voices of these communities
by military and government officials both now and during the
previous administration, these community radio stations appear to be
alive, if not always well. Government pressure to control
programming remains steady and threats of shutdown, though
apparently not acted upon in recent months, continue to hang over
the heads of community radio operators. Until a legal framework for
community radio operations is established, the environment for these
stations will likely not change. How quickly the draft legislation
on this issue moves through its final stages may provide a clue to
the stance of the future government on this issue. End comment.

13. (U) This cable was coordinated with Amcongen Chiang Mai.

ENTWISTLE

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