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18 September 2013
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Rein in the NBTC bullies

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), which has failed at most of its assigned work, has recently tried to expand its powers by intimidation and prying into areas where it does not belong.

The prime example right now is the defamation lawsuit against a research expert and an editor of the Thai PBS network. Unfortunately, this attempt by the NBTC to stifle free speech is not a unique action. It is simply the latest high-profile example of shotgun attempts to gather power, at great cost to civil liberties and the legal system.

In the case at hand, the NBTC’s weapon is the criminal defamation law. The telecom committee has filed suit against Duenden Nikomborirak of the Thailand Development Research Institute and Nattha Komolvadhin, an editor and programme host for Thai PBS.

The lawsuit concerns an interview during which Ms Duenden gave her opinion _ an expert opinion, as if that matters _ that the NBTC had committed a costly error by allowing two leading mobile phone networks a one-year extension on expiring 2G phone concessions.

By doing so, True Move and Digital Phone, a subsidiary of AIS, get to keep a hunk of the 1800MHz bandwidth and continue to rake in profits. And the NBTC will once again fail _ by its own actions _ to hold the bandwidth auction for this spectrum, and push 4G phone operations back a year. Ms Duenden estimated the actual cost in licence fees would amount to nearly 160 billion baht.

After the interview, the NBTC’s telecom committee went after Ms Duenden with a libel suit. Ms Nattha was named because she was the interviewer.

This indefensible misuse of defamation law is bad enough on its own. But the case is only the latest illustration of how the NBTC is trying to stifle free speech, with the goal of expanding its own power into areas that are clearly not within its domain.

The reason there is an NBTC goes back to the 1997 people’s constitution. That document ordered the establishment of a number of independent bodies, among them a broadcasting regulator. The constitution and its framers recognised that a conspiracy of government, military and big business had taken control of the public airwaves. The NBTC was charged by the supreme law of the land to take them back.

But since its formation, the NBTC has seemed to favour the three-way consortium that controls the people’s broadcasting spectrum. The botched 3G auction assured that only the existing networks had a chance to gain network access. The NBTC’s duty to bring 4G services to Thailand has, on the contrary, dumped the country _ once again – years behind the world and our neighbours.

The digital TV auction appears to be sinking into a farcical guarantee that the big companies that now control most broadcasting will actually tighten their grip. Other examples abound.

The very idea that a press interview could “libel” or “defame” the NBTC is ludicrous. But the NBTC’s goal in this lawsuit seems to be part of a policy of intimidation and power expansion.

It seeks to improve the quality of soap operas, force

commercial firms to share broadcasts without compensation, and even decide when broadcasts involve national security, good morality or harm to a religion.

The NBTC must return to its real duty, which is to ensure that the airwaves serve the public. That public has no desire to see the NBTC become merely another bullying censor.


First published: Bangkok Post, 18 September 2013


Deunden Nikomborirak, Ph.D.
Research Director, Economic Governance