By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
BANGKOK — Six broadcasters will host televised debates on the draft charter featuring the panelists of their choice, the head of the election commission said today.
Discarding its previous plan to organize its own series of debates, the Election Commission’s Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said Tuesday that the six traditional broadcasters would be instructed to organize the forums, each focusing on different topics to be decided on Wednesday.
The six "free stations" are Thai PBS, along with channels 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11.
Somchai said all the six stations should choose debaters wisely, considering the parity of their experience and educational background. Those programs would then be broadcast on all 25 stations, including digital TV providers.
They will not be allowed to use false information, vulgar language or incite the viewers to vote one way or the other. And, Chairman Somchai said, it would be better to frame it with a less confrontational word.
“Let’s not use the word ‘debate’ but stick to ‘symposium’ instead,” Somchai said.
The six episodes will run 30 minutes each and aired by the hosting channel from 6:20pm to 6:50pm between June 27 and the date of the planned referendum on Aug. 7.
Details such as whether the program will be relayed at the same time would be decided Wednesday in consultation with relevant television organizations and the state regulators at the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission.
In addition to those six programs, the first and last of 13 planned episodes will be used by the Election Commission to explain the referendum to the public. The junta-appointed body which wrote the charter will be given three episodes to explain its contents, while the interim legislature will have two slots to address additional matters that will be on the ballot along with the the charter referendum question.
Somchai added that other media organizations are free to host their own debates.
Somchai announced in March that his commission would host a series of pre-recorded studio debates. Since then, he said, those plans were outlawed by an April law which criminalized activities such as public campaigning for or against the charter.
Somchai’s announcement, nearly three months after the public was told it could apply to participate in the commission’s debates, came as charter critics complained they were in the dark.
Speaking before the new plan was publicized, student activist leader Rangsiman Rome said he and members of the New Democracy Movement had no information on how they could apply to participate.
“We want the Election Commission to come up with a clear announcement about the criteria involved,” he said earlier Tuesday.
A coalition of groups interested in joining the debate, led by former commission member Gothom Arya, said they had recently been in contact with the national public broadcaster about holding a debate.
“I tried to secure airtime from Thai PBS,” Gothom said. His group includes election monitoring group We Watch, Mahidol University’s Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, and law-reform NGO iLaw.
Gothom said the groups had not applied to participate in any event because it had not received any information.
“We haven’t seen any detailed announcement made by the EC,” he said.
Whatever type of event is held, Rangsiman urged authorities to grant enough time for speakers to articulate their views fully, adding his group would like to see one hour allotted for each group.
He also urged the debates to be broadcast live rather than pre-recorded and edited for content.
“It should be live, as in the end, people will make their own decision,” he said. “We don’t need to censor anything.”
The controversial charter has succeeded in uniting political rivals in denouncing it for being undemocratic. It’s been widely panned by influential academic and political figures, prompting the military to clamp down on criticism by outright criminalizing active campaigning.