Thai state TV in balancing act amid protests

King expected to address nation on Dec. 4

BANGKOK -- At 8 a.m. sharp on Wednesday, smartly dressed Thai commuters in their capital Bangkok froze in their tracks in 86-degree heat as the national anthem played from train station loudspeakers.

Contrast this peaceful daily ritual with scenes on television Tuesday night of guns being fired in public and images of thousands of pipe-wielding protesters storming Bangkok's international airport to stop Thai Prime Minister Soomchai Wongsawat from returning home from overseas.

Thailand's state-owned TV networks showed scenes of the yellow-shirted anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy assaulting a police officer, soaking his hair with phlegm, and of red-shirted pro-government taxi drivers hurling iron bars at speeding cars.

Tulsathit Taptim, columnist for The Nation, Thailand's leading English newspaper, told The Hollywood Reporter that since the four biggest TV channels are owned by the Thai army and the state self-censorship and bias are not uncommon.

Scenes of the protests were not as prevalent on Thai TV as they were on the British Broadcast Corp., for instance, a difference Taptim said was "50 percent due to censors and 50 percent due to commercial interests whose money paid for programming."

The BBC, it should be said, might have a particular interest in the story as Britain recently refused entry to former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006.

Thai independent broadcaster PBS, however, was born was of a different ideology, "that the country should have at least one TV station free from political influence," said Taptim, 45, even as he allowed some improvement in state television in recent years.  

"It's better than before in terms of neutrality and bias, but still, all the television staff and the news crew are basically employed by the government so, at any particular moment, they could get fired or reassigned," he said in a telephone interview.

Whereas other countries might tend to have around the clock TV coverage if their largest airport was shut down, Taptim said "It's not typical for Thai news to break into programming unless it's a really, really big deal like a coup d'etat."

Thai police under orders not to confront protestors were faced Wednesday afternoon with the total closure the world’s 18th-largest airport at the height of the Thai tourist season.

By 5pm local time, the Thai parliament was dissolved and the head of the Thai army, Anupong Paochinda, called for the resignation of PM Wongsawat and for new elections to be held.

Khe, a Bangkok apartment manager who gave only her nickname, said that she feared Wongsawat's resignation would not be the end of the protests. She said Thai TV coverage appeared "as fair as the BBC" due to the vigilance of the anti-government PAD protestors who in recent months have occupied government buildings and TV stations to protest corruption.

Though Khe supports the PAD, she said that the thousands of men and women -- wearing royal yellow to signal an allegiance to Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- had gone too far by shutting Suvarnabhumi Airport.

"My King will not be happy about this. This must stop by next week," Khe said, "This is hurting too many Thai people."  

Dec. 4, the eve of the King's birthday, which is a national holiday, typically features a television address by the widely revered monarch who will turn 81 this year.  "This time he may have to speak about learning to work together," Khe said.

Taptim said that the last times the King had to address the nation on television due to a crisis were after a May 1992 anti-government uprising and the Oct. 14, 1974 army shooting of student civilians, a day he called "the blackest day" in Thai history.

Representatives of state owned TV and PBS could not be reached for comment.