Media and Thai civil society : case studies of television production companies, Watchdog and iTV

  • Ousa Suksai

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The study concerns the inter-relationship between media reform and civil society in Thailand between 1995-2000. It examines case studies of two selected television organisations - the production company Watchdog and the broadcast channel Independent Television (iTV) - and analyses their internal production decision-making processes, their public affairs programs and their urban and rural audiences. Debates about civil society and media reform between 1995-2000 influenced the government's media regulation policies to the extent that more attention was paid to media freedom as intended by Articles 39,40 and 41 in the 1997 Constitution. Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) took an important role in monitoring government policies on media reform under the Constitution and issues about media re-regulation and ownership were canvassed, although the drawn out National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) selecting process delayed media reform. The transparency of the selection process of the NBC has been widely debated among NGOs, media scholars and media professionals. Most Thai public affairs programs in the period were shown on iTV, Channel 9 and Channel 11 and were in the minority compared with entertainment. Thai television stations normally screened entertainment programs to make profits, while they usually would not allow producers to air open debates critical of the government. Also, public affairs programs that were screened often were given inappropriate airtimes. Watchdog and iTV treated public affairs programs in different ways. Watchdog, originating from an NCO, the Creative Media Foundation, emphasized public participation in local community-oriented programs - such as Chirmsak Pinthong's Lan Ban Lan Muang - which exemplified civic journalism on television. In contrast, iTV was created in 1996 to meet the promise made in 1992 after Black May that a non-state commercial channel would be introduced. It was organised by journalists from the Nation Multimedia Company and focused on current national news issues which seldom allowed public participation. Both organisations attempted to maintain their professionalism despite political and business pressures. Chirmsak and Watchdog were accused of bias favoring the Democrat Party and often encountered program censorship. ITV staff, especially in the news department led by Suthichai Yoon and Thepchai Yong, unsuccessful fought. Shin Corps 2000-2001 takeover of the station that had been brought on by the financial problems of iTV and the Siam Commercial Bank after the economic crisis of 1997. There were three main concepts of civil society in the period 1997-2000 - Communitarianism, Self-sufficiency and Good Governance. These ideas were advanced by reformers such as Dr. Prawase Wasi and Thirayut Boonme, and were reinforced by His Majesty King Bhumibol's December 1997 Birthday Speech that endorsed the ideal of national self-sufficiency. Thai civil society debates often were involved with rural people, while the 8th National Development Plan and the Chuan government's policy on decentralisation aimed to strengthen the rural sector as an antidote to the 1997 crisis. However, the aims of civil society reformers were at times too idealistic and were viewed with skepticism by some middle class urban critics. The continuing influence of electoral corruption in rural areas also obstructed civil society ideals, while decentralisation and community development still maintained a top-down way of development and depended on government support. These difficulties in implementing pro-civil society reforms in the political process were paralleled by difficulties in developing public interest programs on Thai television. Current affairs and investigative journalism programs, such as iTV Talk, Tod Rahad and Krong Satanakarn, did not often open public discussion on the programs. Rather, the regular format of panel discussions, consisting of elites and some celebrities, tended to focus on national topics rather than local issues. The hosts of many of these public affairs programs depended on their own celebrities status and tended to invite well-known guests, whereas community-oriented programs such as Lan Ban Lan Muang and Tid Ban Tang Muang promoted civic journalism and deliberative democracy more effectively. The latter programs allowed the public to participate in the programs as the main actors and even proposed their own agendas. However, a limited study of three audience focus groups - an expert urban group, a young middle class urban group, and a rural group - found considerable scepticism about the possibility of developing public interest awareness via television programs. The expert and young middle class groups criticised both the hosts and the style of a selection of current affairs programs, which they thought were too serious and also biased. Some also considered that current affairs programs were a platform for the people in power rather than providing a space for the public. Therefore, they rarely watched them. In contrast, the rural group who participated in Lan Ban Lan Muang, believed that the program was useful for development communication. The audience gained information about other communities and used the media as the means to publicise their own community. However, they rarely watched it because the airtime of the program was the same as a popular entertainment program on Channel 3. The researcher used qualitative research methods to collect data, including indepth interviews, focus groups, participant observation, program recording and document analysis. Theoretically, the study has attempted to combine the approaches of western and Thai scholars. The main approach used to explain the relationship between the media and civil society is media and public sphere theory, as introduced by Habermas, and combined with the perspectives on media re-regulation of the Thai scholar Ubonrat Siriyusak. In terms of analysing Watchdog and iTV, the researcher used political economy perspectives to understand decision-making in both organisations. In addition, an organisational culture approach was used to explore conflicts of interest that arose in both organisations due to their different sub-cultures. Civic journalism, framing theory and development communication theory were further employed to examine the television programs and their roles in promoting the public interest and development projects, while the audience groups were considered in the context of participatory communication theory and reception theory.
    Date of Award2002
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorGlen Lewis (Supervisor) & Warwick Blood (Supervisor)

    Cite this