TDRI and its Role
Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) is a policy research institute, located in Bangkok, Thailand. TDRI was founded in 1984 to provide high quality public policy research to various agencies, including government ministries, public organizations, and international organizations. TDRI consists of over 100 staff members, who are mostly researchers engaging in policy research in economics, environment, human resources and social development programmes. The institute has often been cited and quoted by members of the public and the media for opinion about important public policies. The Economist referred to TDRI as the ‘most respected think tank in Thailand’ and Thailand’s leading English newspaper, the Bangkok Post, selected TDRI as the ‘Person of the Year’ in 2013 for the eminent works on the rice-pledging scheme and the 3G auction which gained wide attention from the public. In short, TDRI serves the public through providing independent and rigorous research analyses and findings so that the public and the media are well informed of important public policies which have significant impacts for Thailand.
The Office of National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and four of Telecommunications Committee (hereafter the ‘Committee’) have filed a defamation case against Dr. Deunden Nikomborirak, TDRI’s Research Director for Economic Governance on 29 August 2013, citing that Dr. Deunden has used incorrect information to accuse the Committee for neglecting to effectively manage the expiring concessions issued to True Corporation and DPC. Before that, the Committee decided to extend the use of 1800 MHz frequency spectrum for the two operators for another year, in effect extending their concessions, citing the need to migrate existing customers.
Dr. Deunden provided a rough estimation of the potential loss from the delayed auction of approximately 112.5-157.5 billion baht per year based on a study by Hazle, Munoz and Avanzier (2012). She noted, however, that the actual figure will need to be estimated based on local variables. Dr. Deunden has requested an explanation from the Committee to why it was unable to migrate customers in time, given that it has over a year to organize the migration.
The Committee, on the other hand, argues that while academics have the right to critically assess the work of NBTC, they should not use distorted information to make their cases. In this case, the Committee argues against Dr. Deunden in twofold. First, for misleading the public to understand that the subcommittee on preparing for the 1800 MHz auction has proposed to the Committee to expedite the auction for the 1800 MHz but the Committee has ignored the proposal. Second, Dr. Deunden’s estimation has been taken out of context and has led the public to misjudge the Committee.
Thus, the following key considerations should be given to this particular case:
- First, public organizations, such as the NBTC Office and the Committee, should be more accountable and answerable to the public. This is so that critical assessment and scrutiny of their actions can be made possible without being threatened with unreasonable legal actions.
- Second, defamation cases, which constitute criminal offences in Thailand, against the researchers and the media are well known to silence and intimidate public participation and criticisms. How does one draw the line between the use and abuse of the rights for public organization to file defamation lawsuits?
- The final consideration should be given to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Telecommunications Committee in handling the case of 1800 MHz auction. Why was the Committee, despite having more than 420 days to organize the auction, still unsuccessful in the implementation of the auction, or at least to organize migration of subscribers and take other necessary measures?
Progress of case
29 August 2013
The Telecommunications Committee and the NBTC Office have filed a defamation case against Dr. Deunden Nikomborisak, TDRI’s Research Director and Dr. Nattha Komolvathin, Thai PBS’ anchor, for presenting information to the public about the allocation of the 1800 MHz spectrum during the period of 29 July – 14 August 2013 through various media channels.
5 September 2013
The National Press Council of Thailand, the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, the Thai Journalists Association, the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, Thailand Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) and Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) held a joint press conference to take a stand against the legal action taken by the Committee and the NBTC Office. The defamation case was deemed groundless and unreasonable, and it was labeled as an ‘intimation against academic and media freedom’ in Thailand. The Committee and the NBTC Office, as public bodies, should be subjected to rigorous debates and critical examination by the public.
11 September 2013
Consumer Rights Group and various civil society groups organized a public seminar, entitled “How can consumers rely on the Telecom Committee? (while the Committee is suing the academic and the media)”. Mr. Boonyong Siridham, President of the Consumer Rights Group, expressed his view that the Committee should use their times and limited resources in improving standards to protect the interests of consumers, rather than suing the researchers and the media. The forum proposed that the Committee should reform its organization to be more receptive to consumers’ complaints and ensure that there is sufficient transparency with appropriate checks and balances mechanisms.
12 September 2013
Chulalongkorn University’s Center for Political Economy Study and Media Policy Study Centre held a public forum on “Defamation Case against Academics and the Public Role of Academics”, focusing on this specific case. One of the panelists, Dr. Veera Somboon, commented that this is the case of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), which is aimed at censoring, intimidating and silencing public participation. Actions like this would create a chilling effect against those who plan to publicly criticize against public organizations.
17 September 2013
Academics from Thammasat University held a public forum, “Freedom to investigate and the price to pay: the case of Telecom Committee suing academic and the media”. Representatives from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication (Thammasat University) and iLaw (Internet Dialogue on Law Reform) critically examined the work of the NBTC and its accountability to the public. The forum discussed how to balance between freedom of expression/investigation and the rights to take legal action against criticisms. In addition, the Media Defence Southeast Asia (MDSEA) issued a statement, criticizing the defamation suit and calls for the NBTC to promptly withdraw the defamation case against Dr. Deunden and Dr. Nattha, immediately.
18 September 2013
The NBTC Commissioners held an urgent meeting to discuss this case and issued a public statement. Commissioner Suthiphon Thaveechaiyagarn argued that TDRI has been provided ‘one-sided’ information to the public and this has badly damaged the reputation of the Commissioners and the NBTC Office. Therefore, he believes that the right thing to do is to defend their reputation through the justice system. This would provoke the society to be more mindful in consuming news and information, and would overall improve the quality of academic research and journalism in Thailand.
19 September 2013
Mr Takorn Tantasith, NBTC’s Secretary-General, provided an interview to the press that one of the defendants has contacted the NBTC office for a closed door negotiation. Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich, TDRI’s President, was taken by surprise by this. Both TDRI and Thai PBS did not have any plans to secretly negotiate with the Committee members and the NBTC Office. It would be more transparent to hold a public discussion over the public issue, particularly the issue of the 1800 MHz spectrum allocation.
In the public eye, the NBTC has always been split into two camps, the ‘majority’ and the ‘minority’ commissioners. For this particular case, the charges were filed by four of the five panel members – Mr. Settapong Malisuwan, Mr. Suthiphon Thaveechaiyagarn, Mr. Prasert Silphiphat and Mr. Sukit Khamasundara – together with the NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasith. The four commissioners are supposedly known as the ‘majority’ commissioners.
On the other hand, Dr. Prawit Leesatapornwongsa, the ‘minority’ Commissioner in the Telecom Committee argues that NBTC, as the regulator of the media industry, should not being suing the media and this is sending a strong message of ‘self-censorship’ to the media industry. Legal action should be the last option by the NBTC. Ms. Supinya Klangnarong, NBTC’s ‘minority’ Commissioner in the Broadcasting Committee, argued that the defamation case amounts to intimidation of the rights of the media and scholars to scrutinize the regulatory body. She added that if the filing were accepted by the court and entered the judicial process, she would testify as a defense witness.
About Dr. Deunden Nikomborirak
Dr. Deunden received her PhD in Economics from McGill University (Montreal, Canada) under the doctoral scholarship programme awarded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). She started working at TDRI since 1988 and became a Research Director, Economic Governance in 2001. Deunden is a member of the Subcommittee overseeing the management of 1800 MHz radio frequency, NBTC. She is also a member of the Subcommittee on Anti-corruption in Private and State-owned Enterprises at the National Counter Corruption Commission. She is a former secretary to the Ministry of Finance from March 2007 – February 2008.
Thomas Hazle, Roberto Munoz and Diego Avanzier (2012), What Really Matters in Spectrum Allocation Design? Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Vol 10.Issue 3
Somkiat Tangkitvanich, 10 Questions the NBTC Must Answer
Deunden Nikomborirak, NBTC and the delayed 4G auction