Military takeover: State bids to control all Thai TV platforms

Variety.com

Posted: Sat., Mar.
10, 2007, 6:00am PT

By PATRICK FRATER

HONG KONG — In Thailand all television is political. Very political.

The
military coup in September ushered in a government that is said to be
transitional. But it shows no sign of wanting to re-establish
democratic rule until it has eradicated much of what was done by former
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

And if that means destroying the media and communications industries that Shinawatra dominated, so be it.

There
is growing evidence the Silvio Berlusconi-like Shinawatra, who was
popular in rural areas and mistrusted in more sophisticated Bangkok,
was corrupt, used his office for his own benefit and sought to dominate
state and private sector airwaves.

Military-backed government
last week grabbed control of iTV, Thailand’s only terrestrial
commercial broadcaster, and took it off air. It said it will save the
jobs of staffers and it might restore broadcasts.

Government was acting on a promise to take over the channel if it went bust.

iTV had been teetering on the brink for weeks and had until March 6 to pay off the fines for breaching its license.

But the government “rescue” is far from generous: Truth is, it forced the net into bankruptcy.

iTV is 53%-owned by the Shin Corp, which Shinawatra previously controlled.

He
sold Shin Corp. to Temasek, an investment group controlled by the
Singapore state, in early 2006 for $1.9 billion and booked a huge
profit — tax free.

The backlash against the channel and Temasek began even before Shinawatra had been kicked out of office.

A
court last May decided that an earlier tribunal decision allowing iTV
to increase its entertainment programming and cut its public service
content was illegal.

That allowed the authorities to rule the
channel was in breach of its license and should pay higher license
fees, plus a fine that rose daily and interest on the total. In June
the bill was baht 76 billion ($2.15 billion). By last week that had
climbed to $2.9 billion.

iTV is not the only target.

A new
satellite channel People’s Television (PTV), which was founded by
members of Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai political party and has a
license, was, as widely expected, prevented from launching Mar 1.

PTV
execs had said they would defy the anticipated court injunction and
launch anyway. (A government takeover of iTV would have left PTV as the
sole Thai channel not controlled by the state, albeit only available to
those with a satellite dish or broadband Internet connection.)

It never came to that. Instead of using the courts to block the launch, the government’s Public Relations Department used force.

It
leaned on CAT Telecom, which provides uplink services, to prevent the
signal reaching satellites. And it ordered telco outfit TOT to prevent
channel webcasting on the Internet.

Housed in a department store,
PTV was initially formed as legal response to ASTV, another net founded
by Shinawatra supporters that is run off an illegal satellite feed.

Not
surprisingly then, the government has also set its sights on taking
control of Shin Satellite, Thailand’s lone private telco satellite,
which, like the rest of the Shin Corp. empire is now owned by Temasek.

Ministers
say that national security is at stake — some have alleged that the
Singaporeans are bugging their phone calls — and that, if necessary,
the company should be confiscated without payment.

Although he is
now in exile and unable to manipulate the Thai media from on high,
Shinawatra is on a whirlwind diplomatic and public relations campaign
around the Asia-Pacific region that could set the stage for his return
from the political wilderness.

To prevent him succeeding, the
government appears to be conducting a scorched earth policy that is
turning Thailand into a financial and media wilderness.

Bizarre policy shifts have destroyed foreign investor confidence in the “land of a thousand smiles.”

A
move in December to outlaw foreign shareholdings in strategic
industries was directly targeted at Temasek and Shin Corp. — although
it was quickly reversed.

Now the state-controlled media have been told they are no longer allowed to report on Shinawatra’s frantic globe-trotting.

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