The media industry in Thailand is facing a period of profound change as a result of digital disruption and societal change. Student-led pro-democracy protests fuelled by social media have helped to open up the media that have long been reluctant to criticise the authorities.
YouTube and Facebook Lives were at the heart of the recent anti-establishment protests that started in 2020 but have continued through this year. Alternative media have built substantial audiences via social platforms, with content that often openly criticises the government and the monarchy – something that was previously unheard of in this strongly deferential country1. Facebook, YouTube, and Line are the most important networks, but Twitter and TikTok have also played essential roles in the protests, especially with younger users. Beyond news, Thais have embraced social platforms more widely, with celebrities and influencers playing a more prominent role.
Against this background, traditional broadcasters and newspapers have been struggling to adapt. The media are free to criticise government policies and cover instances of corruption and human rights abuses. But journalists tend to exercise self-censorship regarding the military, the monarchy, and other sensitive issues. They also face financial pressures as a result of digital change. Following an expensive battle to win digital television licences in 2014, many channels have had to close down due to financial losses. Only 15 of the licensed 24 stations are still broadcasting after failing to attract sufficient ratings and advertising revenue. In our survey, the top three television stations are Channel 3 HD, Thai Rath TV 32, and Channel 7 HD. Radio remains a popular medium in Thailand, with MCOT 100.5 News Network attracting most listeners.
There is often a blurry and somewhat symbiotic line between the alternative and traditional media. Some prominent journalists work for traditional media, but have also built up an independent profile online. On their own websites or via social media, they can tackle different subjects or be more outspoken. Some get additional income from donations or from product placement. In turn, mainstream media often report what is trending in social media, allowing them to extend the scope of their coverage without getting into trouble with the authorities.
The print media, which are largely privately run, include a handful of Thai-language dailies, including Thai Rath Daily, Khaosod, and Daily News. Many papers have found it hard to adapt to online, and some have closed (M2F) or have cut staff. Post Today and The Nation dailies transitioned to online-only in 2019. Newspapers do not charge subscriptions for online news in Thailand, relying instead on advertising income or from cross-subsidies from television if they are part of a bigger media brand.
The preferences of Thai people to watch or listen to the news rather than read has been much discussed. This puts further pressure on printed media – despite a number of government campaigns to get younger people to read. It also helps explain the popularity of Facebook Lives and YouTube as key ways in which journalism is delivered – often accessed from the markets or from public transport due to widely available ‘unlimited data’ packages from many telecom operators.
Smartphones have been widely adopted in Thailand and, for many, they are now the main or only access point for the internet and internet news. Mobile portals that aggregate news from different providers are a popular way to access news in Thailand – valued for their convenience. Both Line Today (36%) and Pantip.com (34%) are accessed by more than a third of our survey respondents weekly.
Our survey shows that the majority of Thais (61%) are concerned about being able to distinguish true and fake news on the internet, with topics such as COVID-19 and politics most frequently mentioned. The government passed a wide-ranging law, the Computer Crime Act, claiming to protect citizens2. But critics fear the vagueness of the provisions and harsh penalties could be used to stifle legitimate critics of the government.
Intense competition has led to a battle for attention amongst media companies, which in turn has increased levels of sensationalism and negativity in Thai journalism. Stories that involve insults or dramas tend to attract bigger audiences and are often spiced up with emojis or other visual accompaniments. For instance, crime stories are widely covered, with one recent murder suspect becoming a nationwide celebrity as a result of wall-to-wall media coverage. As a result, those that still practise more traditional journalism are getting left behind, and many worry about the future of serious investigations and documentaries.
Professor Jantima Kheokao
University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and Dhanaraj Kheokao, Potsdam University, Germany
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Trust in the media (50%) is relatively high by regional standards, but traditional Thai deference towards institutions – including journalists – is starting to breakdown. Thai PBS and Thai Rath have the highest levels of brand trust, with the Nation, which came under fire in recent protests for a pro-establishment/its business owners’ bias, least trusted. This may change following a recent transfer of ownership.