Cablegate: Community Radio in Thailand: Crackdown or Crossed

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: 02 BANGKOK 7237

1. (U) SUMMARY: An estimated 2,000 (maybe 3,000)
unregistered community radio stations continue to broadcast
popular news and "call in" talk shows without a legal
regulatory framework. Appointment of a National Broadcasting
Commission (NBC) remains stalled in the Thai Senate.
Although the Royal Thai Government (RTG) air traffic control
agency has complained that some community radios are
interfering with aviation safety, recent government attempts
to enforce interim regulations on community radio stations
are regarded as intimidation by popular radio personalities
and Thai media freedom watchdogs. END SUMMARY.


2. (U) The current legal basis for community radio in
Thailand is the 1997 reformist Constitution, which, under
Section 40, states, "Transmission frequencies for radio or
television broadcasting and radio telecommunication are
national communication resources for public interest." The
Constitution calls for the establishment of an "independent
regulatory body" to distribute these frequencies for "utmost
public benefit". In late 2004, the Thaksin administration
submitted a list of 14 nominees for a proposed National
Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to the appropriate Thai Senate
subcommittee for vetting. That subcommittee is tasked with
selecting 7 committee members from the 14 nominees for
further processing, but its consideration of the list is
still pending. The Thaksin government previously submitted a
nominee list for the NBC in 2003. That list was rejected on
appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court due to a lack of
transparency in the selection process and claims of conflicts
of interest between nominees and members of the selection
committee which came up with the names. Senator Chirmsak
Pinthong recently told journalists that the selection process
for the names submitted by the Thaksin government was
tainted. He claimed that many of the nominees submitted both
times were not qualified to sit on a NBC regulatory body; he
reiterated claims of conflicts of interest amongst selection
panel members and NBC nominees.


3. (U) Under interim regulations established by the Public
Relations Department (PRD) in March 2003, community radio
stations are allowed to continue "extra-legal" operations
until the proposed NBC enacts regulations. These interim
rules limit stations to 30 watts of power, a 30-meter antenna
and range of 15 to 18 kilometers. In January 2005, the PRD
issued an additional regulation allowing the stations to air
6 minutes of commercials a day. PRD officials have told
Embassy officers that there are approximately 1,793
registered community radio stations. This number includes 500
stations in the Community Radio Network, an alliance of
station managers formed to defend the rights of community
radio operators nationwide. But privately both the PRD and
NGOs admitted that the true total number of stations is
unknown. Estimates range from 2,000 to 3,000. (Note: The
RTG owns and controls 524 officially registered "regular" AM
and FM radio stations in the country. The military and
police services control 230 radio stations, PRD and the Mass
Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT) control over
170 stations combined. Nearly all of these stations are
leased to commercial companies. End Note.)


4. (U) Uajit Virojtrairatt, of the media watchdog group,
Civil Media Development Institute, stated in The Nation
newspaper on May 24 that some stations are making handsome
profits on untaxed commercial air time, claiming that one
station made up to 200,000 baht ($5,128) per month.
Meanwhile, Uajit noted, registered commercial radio stations
are complaining of declining advertising revenue as
businesses turned to cheaper airtime on community radio.
Because only government operated broadcast entities are
allowed to transmit paid advertising in Thailand, this newly
granted authority allowing community radio stations to sell
advertising time may have accelerated the rapid growth of the
medium in recent months, and prompted operators to stretch
the envelope of allowable frequencies and transmission power.

5. (U) Suranand Vejajiva, the media savvy Minister to the
Prime Minister's Office and former spokesman for the Thai Rak
Thai (TRT) party, has been assigned the public relations
portfolio in Thaksin's office. He reportedly ordered the
PRD to review all community radio stations operations to
ensure they are following the interim guidelines. Press
reports indicated that the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand
(Aerothai), the RTG-run air traffic control agency,
complained to Suranand that some community radio stations
broadcasts interfered with air traffic communications. On
May 25, the chairman of the Thai Parliament's House
Telecommunication Subcommittee and TRT party list Member of
Parliament Suphap Khlikhachai confirmed to Embassy officers
that Aerothai had contacted his committee with similar
complaints. Suphap said Aerothai had provided him with a
letter stating that over 80 incidents of radio interference
had occurred since January, all in Northeast Thailand. Most
incidents occurred near an airport in Buriram province. No
claims of interference in Bangkok were stated in the letter.


6. (SBU) Controversy over RTG regulation of an estimated
2,000 FM community radio stations came to public light the
week of May 18 when Royal Thai Police (RTP) "visited" the
broadcasting studio of a popular Bangkok radio host, Anchalee
Paireerak. Anchalee's political programs, though not
virulently anti-government, are noted for their critical
analysis of the Thaksin administration. Anchalee confirmed
that police came to her station on May 18 and requested to
see the tower. They were turned away since they did not
possess a search warrant, and the owners of the building
decided not to let the police into the studio or to inspect
the tower on the rooftop. Poloff contacted Anchalee who
stated that the PRD has now ordered her station to lower its
broadcast antenna from atop the Thai Petrochemical Industry
(TPI) tower and to place it no more than 30 meters above the
ground by May 25. She reported that this would effectively
shut down the station on May 25 until technical arrangements
can be made. She said that the signal strength of the
station is no more than 30 watts and that the antenna itself
is not more than 30 meters long. However, since the
transmission tower sits atop a multi-story modern office
building, it is more than 30 meters above the ground.
Anchalee stated that she had attempted to confirm with
Aerothai if her station or other community radio stations
were interfering with air traffic signals but no one at
Aerothai would confirm such claims directly to her. She said
the response of most community radio operators was that the
RTG's claim of radio interference with aviation was just a
ruse for a crackdown on radio stations critical of the
Thaksin government.

7. (SBU) Poloff also spoke with Supinya Klangnarong of the
NGO Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR). Supinya is the
defendant in a criminal and multimillion-dollar civil libel
lawsuit filed by Shinawatra Corporation (Shincorp), founded
by PM Thaksin and currently owned by members of his immediate
family. In 2003, Supinya had published a study claiming that
the PM's net worth increased exponentially as a result of
Thaksin's increased hold on power in the Thai Parliament
increased. Supinya stated she had spoken out recently in
public in support of Anchalee and others as she "could not
stand by and watch the government make excuses" to suppress
other critical voices. She said that even though her libel
trial is set to begin in 2 months time, she has a
responsibility to support others who face interference from
the RTG. She noted how surprised she was at the growth of
community radio, reflecting upon a time only 4 years ago when
one of the first stations opened in Kanchanaburi province.
By 2002, there were several hundred and now she stated that
no one knows for sure the real number nationwide but that it
could be up to 3,000. She dismissed claims of radio
interference with air traffic as baseless, noting that if
there were a real safety issue with aircraft communication,
especially with Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok,
the RTG, especially the military, would not wait so long to
shut down stations.

8. (SBU) COMMENT: The regulatory void that has allowed
community radio to flourish in the last few years has been a
mixed blessing. Industrious Thais have taken advantage of
the relatively "free market" of airwaves to fill them up with
hundreds of small locally run stations. They continue to
operate "under the radar" of the Government to some degree,
while offering a critical alternative to the voice of
RTG-controlled stations. The current spat over reported
interference with air traffic communications is part of a
larger battle to come over the establishment of the NBC.
Once that independent body is up and running and clearly in
charge, its directives will set the tone for the Thaksin II
administration's commitment to freedom of the press for
community radio and all broadcast media. END COMMENT.

© Scoop Media

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