Frequencies: Public goods not owned yet by the public

It’s been more than 24 years since the media reform began in Thailand, but the state still refuses to give up its ownership of public frequencies. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commissioners, over half of whom are military and police officers, has allowed state agencies to continue to own frequencies, and ignored the recommendations from an internal committee. To make matters worse, the NCPO recently made an order allowing state agencies to retain frequencies for further five years. Currently, the military still owns over 100 frequencies.

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) was due to organise auctions recently for telecommunication frequencies and digital television. The most urgent task of the NBCT, however, is to complete a reallocation of radio frequencies by 2017, as determined by the master plan.

The report will examine the progress of the recall and allocation of these radio frequencies.

Why do frequencies need to be recalled?

Before the social media era, ownership of media channels reached back to the 1990s. Radio and television stations are owned by the state. Private use is allowed through concessions which, of course, are easy to control.

When the political uprising took place in May 1992, people could not find credible news and information for consumption, leading to a call to reform the media.  

“Radio and television was used heavily as tool for political struggle. Aside from those propaganda that made certain people look like angels, these state media also manipulated information, and misrepresented democratic movements systematically,” said Boonrak Boonyakhetmala

This is similar to the view of Rattana Buosonte who wrote in Siamrath Weekly Review magazine that state control of information which prevents people from accessing credible news has caused doubts about state media. During the 1992 uprising, people living around Bangkok decided to go to the protest sites themselves to get direct formation since they were confused by the news and rumours from various news sources.

This incident led to reform of the military as well as the media. Accordingly, ITV was established. It also led to Article 40 of the 1997 constitution which determines that frequencies are public resources. Independent commissions were to be established to allocate and regulate television, radio, and telecommunications to ensure benefits to the public and free and fair competition.

These commissions never became operational and the structure changed after the 2006 coup. The original Broadcast and Radio Commission and Telecommunication Commission were merged into the NBTC under the 2007 constitution. The first set of commissioners began work in 2011.

The 10-member Commission includes six military and police personnel. Civil society representatives include Supinya Klangnarong, formerly the Secretary-General of the Media Reform Campaign Committee, and Dr. Prawit Leesatapornwongsa, former director of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Institute. It has never been clear whether they would be able to pursue their people’s agenda within the commission or merely serve as “decoration” for the panel.

The Commission drafted a 2012 master plan to recall frequencies from state agencies, while those used commercially were to be recalled at the end of the concessions. Those operating without concessions were to return the frequencies within 5, 10, and 15 years for radio, broadcasting, and telecommunications respectively. Sections 82 and 83 of the 2010 Act on the Organization to Assign Radio frequency and to Regulate the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Services stipulate that state agencies owning frequencies have to justify the necessity for this. When necessary, state agencies would still be allowed to retain ownership, but for no longer than five years after the NBTC master plan was enacted.

According to the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, most FM and AM frequencies (198 stations) are mostly controlled by the military (Air Force, Navy, Army and Armed Forces Headquarters). The government Public Relations Department has 145 stations; MCOT has 62; the Royal Thai Police has 44, the Secretariat of the House of Representatives has 6; the NBTC has 8, and the Thai Meteorological Department has 6.

Five years of no progress

In radio, where the frequency recall is due in April 2017, there is no visible progress. On October 17, 2016, the Radio Broadcasting Subcommittee agreed to let 27 state agencies with control of 537 frequencies to relinquish them on April 3, 2017, the latest date allowed in the master plan.

Supinya Klangnarong, one of the commissioners who has long worked on this issue, gave a dissenting opinion that the review should be on a case-by-case basis. The date for return of the frequencies should also be earlier, and the reallocation plan should also be determined after the recall.

Supinya points out that the NBTC Subcommittee may have given the benefit of the doubt to these state agencies by granting them the right to continued use, without reviewing the facts and justifications provided. In Supinya’s dissenting memo, she points out that only 18 agencies with 113 frequencies are deemed to be using them according to their agencies’ purposes, but 10 agencies with 425 frequencies are not.


Army takes 127 frequencies for “work mission”

The Royal Thai Army has 127 frequencies in its possession, consisting of 49 FM and 78 AM stations. The Army’s current broadcast master plan states the necessity of the stations to serve its mission and purpose.

“The Army as the main state mechanism to maintain national security upholds its mission to protect national sovereignty, uphold Buddhism, defend the monarchy, and serve the people in the best way it can. The Army aims to build capacity to prepare for all kinds of national threats, especially the use of authorized frequencies for public relations, psychological operations, and intelligence information to serve the mission of the Army...

“They are mainly used as an important tool to maintain good understanding and relationships between the state and the people. In the past, the Army has been able to give concrete support to solving various national crises.”

NBTC - useless existence?

The dissenting opinion within the NBTC viewed that in the first 1-2 years, it must be verified whether the usage of some frequencies is legitimate. For example, it has to be verified whether the educational radio stations run by universities are used by the universities for non-profit purposes and similarly whether the state agencies who are using frequencies for public information purposes should be allowed to continue to use them.

Another good example is 1 Por Nor that belongs to the NBTC. Thus should already have been recalled in the first year as there is no reason for the NBTC to hold the frequency. If they want to do digital radio, they can use those frequencies to do so. They can also allow bidding for frequencies or allocate them as public frequencies, according to the NBTC dissenting opinion.

“The value of frequencies has gone up so much now because globally, broadband or 700 MHz was long ago used for television. Nowadays, it is used as 4G or 5G in Europe and America, resulting in much higher prices. So these normal analogue frequencies that are about to expire now have really high values,” said Supinya.

“If it has been dragged on for 5 years, we wouldn’t have time for reallocation. It would be the duty of the next set of NBTC Commissioners. We can say that we have failed at allocating radio frequencies. We just came to maintain the status quo in radio. We have chosen to do nothing except granting approval to new station owners,” said Supinya, adding that there is not even plan on what to do after these frequencies are recalled.

“When we talk about media reform, it is not about recalling state frequencies any more. Instead it more concerns media ethics and media freedom. Once the narrative changes it is very hard to push for frequency recall as a public agenda. Frequencies are like treasure; they are valuable resources. So those who are in possession, of course they don’t want to return them.”

NCPO order: military keeps public frequencies

Before the NBTC could be labelled a failure in reallocating the frequencies, a hero on a white horse came to save it in the name of the NCPO. The junta employed Section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution to postpone the reallocation master plan for another 5 years.

Suwanna Sombatraksasook, Director of the Chulalongkorn University station, expressed her disappointment at this decision. She noted that the order allows the Army to maintain their interests as they still have many frequencies in their possession. They have also never declared the necessity or justification for this.

She also viewed the role of the NBTC to be limited as they have only been able to issue digital TV licences. For radio, Gen. Nathee Sakulrat, Vice Chair of the NBCT and Chair of the Television Broadcasting Subcommittee told Chula Radio that community radio ownership is considered quite decentralized already. However, this ownership is temporary, and mainstream radio should still be more fairly allocated.

“It is true that radio is not so popular any more these days, but things may change in the next five years, for example digital FM/AM radios. But what if the military still refuses to return these frequencies?” asked Suwanna.

She pointed out the consequence that in the next five years there will be no categorization of radio stations into public, commercial, or community radio. Those who identified themselves in the past five years as public radio, such as Chula Radio, would not survive if they don’t receive subsidies. At the same time, community radio will never be able to emerge as mainstream radio. The small radio stations will die out, while they could have collectively bid for mainstream frequencies. This is considered a distortion of market mechanisms.

Suwanna said that digital radio may already be useless within five years. Now everything is convergent. People can listen to their radio online or in their car. There’s no need to buy a radio. All the 30 something radio stations can be accessed online through Smart TV. If they plan to extend the current ownership structure for another five years, they will lag behind the technology.

They came back to turn back the clock  

Looking back at the time 0f the master plan to recall frequencies, Suthep Wilailert, former Secretary-General of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said that it might seem successful legally, but in practice, no organisation has ever accomplished it.

“We have the frequency allocation bill which stipulates that the state is not allowed to give concessions to private companies. The NBTC should specify the reallocation timeframe and categorize the use as public, private, and community at local and regional levels. State agencies must declare the need to use it. Overall, at least 20% of the frequencies must be allocated to civil society. Radio is clearer as it is closer to the people’s use, therefore community radio was born.”

But until now, that 20% of frequencies has never reached community and civil society organisations.

“Even though we have the internet and other communications channels, people have to buy internet services to get access. But that 20% is about reallocation of public goods. This is the right of people to directly access a resource for communication. Therefore, the frequency recall is very important and would be useful,” said Suthep.

Suthep pointed out that there is always procrastination. Even though NBTC exists, they are not able to recall frequencies. Instead, they allowed the existing situation for five years, and NCPO even extended it for five years more.

Compared to radio, he views that TV ownership has changed somewhat, as it has transferred to private ownership. Even though the state takes the auction fee, eventually the state shifts its role to become the service provider of a multiplexer (MUX). When a coup happens, for example, instead of shutting down TV, they can just shut down the MUX. In this way, the state can control content. Technically, it’s like a gateway. On another hand, the government also uses Section 37 of the 2008 Thai Public Broadcasting Service Act to regulate content. The guidelines for determining what content is wrong are quite vague, and they blame the media for not being able to regulate themselves.

“Lately, academics often said that media reform is content regulation, despite the fact that we have so little progress on the media ownership issue. This is a distraction away from the real problem.”

From these failures, Suthep raised questions about how each military coup has led to the exploitation and misuse of public resources by the state. This applies not only to frequencies but also other kinds of resource. If an election is to take place, we must think carefully how to prevent another coup d’état, he said.

He also raised the question of whether fair ownership of frequencies would also include telecommunications so that people can use without charge at least 20% of the available frequencies.

 

Note: This article was translated from Thai to English by Suluck Lamubol