Thai govt moves to take over Temasek’s iTV

March 2, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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AFP
1 Mar 07

Thailand said Tuesday that the government would take over the nation’s only private television broadcaster if it fails to meet a deadline next week to pay 2.8 billion dollars in fines and overdue fees.

The battle over iTV marks the latest move by the military-backed government against companies controlled by Shin Corp, a telecom giant founded by deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Shin Corp was bought last year by Singapore’s state-linked investment firm Temasek, sparking a popular uproar that eventually led to the coup against Thaksin in September.

The takeover threat came after iTV lost a court battle over its concession fees. The company faces a March 6 deadline to settle the overdue fees and fines.

“We have to revoke the concession because iTV cannot pay the amount of money ordered by court,” Finance Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula said.

“We have no any other choice. We need to cancel its concession because we are the owner of airwaves,” he said.

ITV began broadcasting mainly as a news network in 1996, as the only free-to-air station in Thailand not run by either the government or the military.

Under its original concession, it was required to pay one billion baht a year in fees to the government, and was required to maintain 70 percent of its programming as news shows.

But the station’s reporting of Thaksin’s first campaign for prime minister angered the billionaire politico, and his Shin Corp bought a majority stake in iTV in 2001.

The new ownership then watered down the news content, providing more entertainment shows that resulted in a lawsuit claiming that iTV had violated the terms of its concession.

A court ruled in 2004 that only 50 percent of iTV’s programming needed to be news, and lowered its concession fees to 230 million baht a year.

But the Supreme Administrative Court overturned that decision in December, and ordered the station to pay the overdue fees as well as fines, which threatened to bankrupt the company.

Singapore’s Temasek now holds about 53 percent of iTV through Shin Corp, which critics say gives undue influence over Thai media to a foreign country.

Shin Corp said Tuesday that iTV posted losses of 1.78 billion baht in 2006, against profits of 679 million baht in the previous year, because of the increased concession fees.

Thai press freedom groups, meanwhile, worried that a government takeover would destroy what little independent reporting still exists on the nation’s airwaves.

“This would be a step backward for media,” said Supinya Klangnarong, who heads the Campaign for Popular Media Reform.

“Taking control of iTV will mean that all the stations have the same news reports. Having iTV as a private, independent station is a way to balance the news reports,” she said.

The Thai Broadcast Journalists Association urged the government not to take over iTV, but to help the company restructure to settle its debts before returning as an independent station.

“The government should bring iTV back to its original mission of being ‘independent television’,” association president Takerng Somsup said.

“During the process, the government should use iTV as a public interest television broadcaster,” he said. “ITV should not be used as political tool.”