Radio is a sound salvation

Marginalized Thai groups seek access to the public sphere through community radio because the mainstream media is concentrated in corporate hands

Bangkok Post
Sunday, March 29, 2009

By Supara Janchitfah

Despite the fact that the station is equipped only with a simple transmission device, a crowd of people waited outside Kanchanaburi's community radio (CR) studio discussing their programming ideas. On that day they were particularly energised by news that the police had taken action against gambling dens in a nearby village after concerns were voiced on the station.

"This is one of the simple success stories that shows we can use our station to urge for changes," said Boonsong Chansongrasami, chairperson of the National Federation of Community Radios (NFCR).

Mr Boonsong is also a leader of the Kanchanaburi Environmental Group, which opposed the Thai-Burmese gas pipeline a mega project which snakes through pristine forests on both sides of the border. In a losing battle, they fought to preserve the forests on both sides of the border as well as promote good governance and human rights inside Burma.

Mr Boonsong is passionate about the power and potential of CR and thinks it fills an important need.

In the past many of our issues and problems rarely were reflected in the mainstream media.

"We could not explain our stand to the public since we had no media channels to express our reasoning and concerns why we opposed the project. Meanwhile the project holders could exhaust all means to present information to the mainstream media and the public," he said.

This is one of many reasons why Mr Boonsong and his allies have been fighting for public access to transmission frequencies for radio and television broadcasts, as provided by both the 1997 and 2007 constitutions. In addition, Section 26 of the 2000 Organisation of Frequency Wave Allocation and Supervision of Radio Broadcasting, Television and Telecommunications Enterprises (OFWATE) Act states that at least 20% of radio frequencies must be allocated to the public sector and that people must be encouraged to use them.

Despite the constitutional and other legal guarantees, the general public lacks understanding of the essential issues surrounding CR. Many times CR stations are portrayed as being "illegal" radio operators, and accused of interrupting aviation. However, according to a research entitled "Community Radio Frequencies Management" conducted by Thai Volunteers Services Foundation and the NFCR, there were more than 3,000 interruptions to aviation systems occurring from 2005 to 2007, but non-commercial CR was responsible for none of them.

The research also found out that major troubles in CR operations came from a state failure to educate the public.

In 2004 the Thaksin government, through the Department of Public Relations, allowed some CR stations to accept six minutes of commercial advertisements per hour. This is still in effect even though it is against the OFWATE Act, which states clearly that CR must be run on a non-profit basis.

The NFCR stresses non-commercial operation in its nationwide federation of stations.

"We involve people in the process of producing and operating the programmes. We raise our own funds not from advertisement and all work is done voluntarily," said Mr Boonsong.

"Our station is owned and run by the community. This has provided a platform for us to identify and analyse many local and national issues and sometimes find solutions," Veerapol Charoentham of Loei's CR station explained, adding that cultural issues are also discussed.

He and many others feel that CR can be a focus for catalysing change. For example, through the Kanchanaburi CR station people can propose new laws.

REGULATION IS COMING

The lack of an independent regulatory body to allocate the frequencies and to issue licences for the operators is the major problem in community radio operations. "Thus, the past few years have seen the flourishing of CR without proper regulation," said Prirongrong Ramasutra, a Chulalongkorn University lecturer in mass communications. She pointed out that the establishment of a regulatory body is needed, and added that co-regulation is the key. "This would allow all stakeholders, included with representatives of CR operators, to participate in managing frequencies, setting up a code of practice and standard of ethics," she said.

Thailand presently has a National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), but in an atmosphere of non-transparency in procedural affairs and apparent conflicts of interest over the past five years, its intended sister organisation, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), has not been established.

The 2007 Constitution calls for an independent regulatory body with the duty to supervise radio, television and telecommunication operations. Last Thursday the Office of the Prime Minister hosted the second reading of the proposed draft to establish the NBTC to oversee both the NTC and NBC, in compliance with Article 47 of the Constitution.

The prospective commission has as its main mandates to set up a frequency management plan, allocate frequencies for both telecommunication and broadcasting, define types of telecom and broadcasting businesses and issue licences.

Apart from the regulatory issue, there are other problems stemming from a lack of state educational and technical support, such as interference, as some CR stations operate on frequencies which are very close together.

When this happens, said Pravit Chumchoo, an engineering lecturer at Mahanakorn Technology University who helped to conduct the research cited above, the frequencies tend to overlap. The study proposes some solutions to concerned agencies (see sidebar).

Moreover, since there is no clear law on the allocation of frequencies it has led to other complications for CR operators. For example, they cannot buy the radio transmission device legally, and thus the purchase comes without proper training which in some instances leads to problems with operation, such as frequency jamming.

"We wish to have someone train us on how to use and repair the devices properly," said Mr Boonsong.

During the past seven years, the state has intervened in the operations of a number of CR stations, including dispatching officials to inspect the stations, resulting in self-censorship at some stations, and in some cases ordering stations to close down. One of the reasons this has come about is because the state has felt CR stations were being used as a political platform.

During the administration of Thaksin Shinawatra, a radio station was ordered to close down and an operator was arrested because the station broadcast messages from the anti-Thaksin movement. More recently a state agency ordered a CR station to stop its operation because it was seen to be broadcasting a pro-Thaksin, anti-government message. In some cases only certain programmes have been banned.

A subtler form of interference is the decision by past governments to allow some CR stations to air advertisements and obtain sponsors in the private sector.

"How can you say a station is community radio when they receive money from advertisers or influential people? Then they are no longer independent," said Mr Boonsong.

Wattana Banterngsook, a member of the NFCR in the Eastern region said that community radio should be initiated by the locals and motivate community members to participate and express themselves freely. It should also give and receive information without censorship and interference from politicians or influential people.

Her CR in the Eastern region of the country has been educating people about pollution, health care problems and so on. "People are aware of health issues, and they want to know more as they are encountering many health-related problems due to pollution in the Eastern Seaboard," said Ms Wattana, a former lecturer in nursing.

Col Natee Sukonrat, Deputy director of Policy and Planning, Royal Thai Army and chairperson of the draft CR regulations developing committee, is aware of the problems of CR and the consequences of not having a regulatory body. "The most urgent thing is to have a regulatory body to issue the licenses for community radio stations, since the establishment of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission is still pending" he said, adding that presently the CR subcommittee under the NTC, which he chairs, can only issue a temporary licence for CR and cable TV operators.

Among more than 5,000 stations, only around 120 can be considered non-commercial or true CR, and many would fall into some other categories, mostly commercially or politically oriented. The draft regulation aims to distinguish between these stations and stipulates that eligible licence applicants must be Thai organisations or juristic persons, and be founded under Thai law to serve the public interest, with no intention to seek a profit. Moreover, committee members of the applicant radio stations should not hold a political position. This is also stated in Section 48 of the 2007 Constitution.

The draft stipulates that licence holders of CR stations are prohibited from seeking commercial revenues, but can seek revenues from other sources such as state and private financial grants and from donations.

Virtually all CR operators agree that a regulatory body is needed, although they may not agree with all provisions of the draft bill. They want to take part in shaping the regulations, as there are many issues that should be settled such as establishing accountability in revenue-seeking and other operations.

Mr Boonsong, Ms Wattana and Mr Veerapol hope that their brand of non-commercial CR will be allowed to function and flourish without intervention when the draft bill becomes law and the regulatory body is set up.

"We hope that our community radio would be a drop of truth in the ocean of manipulation that is the mainstream media," said Mr Boonsong.