MEDIA-THAILAND: Interference Mars Community Radio


By Lynette Lee Corporal – Asia Media Forum

BANGKOK, Jan 11 (IPS) – Pride evident in his voice, Weerapol Charoenthum expressed his satisfaction with ‘Maung Loei’, a community radio station run by the youth of the north-eastern Thai province of Loei.

The station is among about a dozen that are part of Loei Community Networks, whose concept entails using radio as a means to teach children how to be responsible citizens and gives adults a way to “listen to what the children have to say” about different issues, explains Weeraphol, coordinator of the networks.

“Community radio has opened up communication channels for people and although we continue to face problems such as lack of funds, we are quite happy with what we have done so far,” Weerapol said in a lecture on community radio this week at Chulalongkorn University here.

“There is no question about the desire of local communities to express themselves through small media. It is a global phenomenon. But this is complicated by challenges coming from different sides, including changes in technology, that we don’t see the future clearly,” explained Prof Drew McDaniel, director for international studies of Ohio University.

Flourishing in the years following the media reforms provided in Thailand’s 1997 constitution, community radio became quite popular during ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration.

Years later, these local stations continue to experience birthing pains brought about by challenges posed by licensing, funding, programming goals — and freedom of expression.

In the months after Thaksin’s ouster in September 2006, the military and the government it installed frowned on community radio stations in the north-east, known for giving popular support to the ousted leader, and clamped down on some that were seen to be opposed to military rule or sympathetic to the Thaksin government.

“Like in the Philippines, community radio in Thailand is more development-oriented, focusing on such issues as agriculture, for instance. Those located in troubled areas, on the other hand, naturally would have a more political nature,” Thai scholar and activist Prof Ubonrat Siriyuvasat said in an interview.

Unfortunately, Prof Chalisa Magpanthong added, many local stations remain unclear about their goals.

“Because a lot of them get their funding to operate from foreign donors, people tend to misuse it. They would do as they please and have no fixed programming,” said Chalisa, whose doctoral dissertation at Ohio University was on community radio in Sakon Nakhon province in the north-east, Lamphun in the north, and Pattani in the south.

Another problem that comes with outside funding, she continued, is the propagation of vested economic or political interests. “We’ve heard cases of people using the radio to bash each other on air,” said Chalisa.

What’s more, in places like Sakon Nakhon where a hierarchy exists among different minority groups, problems of discrimination also abound and result in ‘lesser’ minorities being overlooked and ignored.

In Pattani, located in the restive south where there is separatist sentiment and a history of bombings over the last few years, community radio tends to avoid political issues because they are afraid of being shut down by the authorities, added Chalisa.

“There are cases when the radio programmes just air Public Relations Department news items and don’t talk about the real issues and problems affecting them,” added Ubonrat.

According to Chiang Mai University lecturer Jiraporn Witayasakpan, only 150 among the 3,000 or so radio stations across the country can be considered authentic community-based ones, meaning they were set up and are being managed by the people themselves. “Forty-five of them are in the northern region and 10 are in Chiang Mai province,” Jiraporn stated, quoting a survey done by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Citing ethnic and linguistic diversities in the United States, McDaniel said that one of the major reasons why a community wants to put up its own radio station is “to be able to broadcast in its own language”. While the United States can pride itself in giving more leeway to such goals, the same could be a bit more tricky in Thailand, where the use of dialects or other languages are ‘discouraged’ by the government, experts explained.

“In Pattani, for example, locals used to broadcast in their local language (Yawi). Citing national security threats following the unrest in the south, the government began monitoring these programmes and tried to control the use of local language,” said Chalisa.

This, she added, conflicts with the concept of participatory communication, which involves the freedom to determine local language, content and location of stations.

Media reform activist Supinya Klangnarong said: “People –Thais and non-Thais — should be allowed to freely express their views and discuss their problems. It’s funny how government sees other languages, Burmese for instance, as a threat to national security.” More than a million Burmese migrant workers, many of them undocumented, are estimated to be living in Thailand.

Limited frequencies are another problem for community radio proponents, because most are ‘occupied’ by a few state-owned and private media corporations.

The trouble stems from the fact that the National Broadcasting Commission, tasked to allocate frequencies and oversee operations of broadcast networks, has not been formed yet. Yet a law was passed in 2000 to create the Radio Frequencies Allocation and Regulatory Body.

“One problem that we see from this law is that the criteria for allocation of frequencies is very wide and if we’re not careful, these frequencies could be dominated by powerful groups and edge out smaller community radio that does not have the same resources,” said Supinya.

Nonetheless, proponents of a stronger public-oriented media are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, especially in the wake of the December 2007 election that was held more than a year after the military-led coup that led to closer supervision of community media.

“While community radio has not exactly flourished as much as we’d like it to, the people are excited with the concept and are looking forward to see its development,” said Chalisa.





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