In the mid-1980s, the media played an important role as the principal source of domestic and foreign news and, to a lesser degree, as a source of public entertainment. All major daily newspapers were privately owned, but radio and television stations were controlled by the government and operated as commercial enterprises. Newspapers were generally regarded as more credible than the government-controlled broadcast media.
Mass media were under the broad supervision of the Public Relations Department in the Office of the Prime Minister. This department served as the principal source of news and information about the government and its policies. It issued daily news bulletins on domestic and foreign affairs for use by the print and electronic media. News bulletins were also issued by other government agencies, including the Thai News Agency, established in 1976 under the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand, a state enterprise under the Office of the Prime Minister. The Thai News Agency concentrated mostly on domestic affairs; foreign news was gathered from international wire services, which maintained offices or representatives in Bangkok.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, which may not be curbed except by law "for the purpose of maintaining the security of state or safeguarding the liberties, dignity or reputation of other persons or maintaining public order or good morals or preventing deterioration of the mind or health of the public." Most observers agreed that the Thai press enjoyed considerable freedom. Nevertheless, in the 1980s editorial writers and reporters continued to exercise self-censorship, mindful that there were unwritten but real government constraints, especially on coverage relating to the monarchy, government affairs, internal security matters, and Thailand’s international image. The existing statutes gave broad powers to the director general of the Thailand National Police Department, including the authority to revoke or suspend the license of an offending publication. The severity of penalties varied, depending on the political climate and the sensitivity of an issue. In 1987 a new press bill was pending before the National Assembly, the intent of which was to give the press as much autonomy as possible except in time of war or in a state of emergency, in which case the press officer would be allowed to exercise censorship.
Daily newspapers were concentrated heavily in Bangkok, where at least 65 percent of the adults read a daily paper, compared with about 10 percent in rural areas. Newspapers were generally independent, and many were financially solvent, deriving their income from sales and advertising. The government was forbidden by law to subsidize private newspapers. Foreign ownership of newspapers was also banned as a safeguard against undue foreign or subversive influence.
In the 1980s, Thai journalistic standards improved steadily, as reflected in the print media’s growing emphasis on political and economic issues, as well as on major foreign news events. This could be attributed to the emergence of a more discriminating readership. On the negative side, sensationalist coverage and insufficient professional training continued to mar the reputation of the Thai press.
There were about 150 newspapers, including 30 dailies in Bangkok and 120 provincial papers in 1985. Some Bangkok dailies were considered to be national newspapers because of their countrywide distribution. Most provincial papers appeared every two, five, seven, or ten days. In Bangkok twenty-one dailies appeared in Thai, six in Chinese, and three in English. Of an estimated daily circulation of 1.6 million for all Bangkok dailies in 1985, Thai Rath (800,000 circulation) and the Daily News (400,000 circulation) together claimed about 75 percent of the total circulation. These two newspapers reportedly were popular among white-collar groups. The most successful among the remaining newspapers were Ban Muang, Matichon, Siam Rath, and Naew Na. The English-language dailies were the Bangkok Post, The Nation, and the Bangkok World, which were popular among the well-educated and influential members of Thai society and were regarded by many as more reliable than the Thai dailies. Some of the editorial positions on the Bangkok Post and the Bangkok World were held by foreigners, mostly British; The Nation, on the other hand, was almost entirely staffed by Thai and tended to view the world from a Thai perspective.
Unlike the English-language dailies, whose circulation was increasing in the early 1980s, Chinese-language dailies were declining in readership. Their total circulation was probably around 70,000. Two leading Chinese-language dailies were Sing Sian Yit Pao and Tong Hua Yit Pao. These dailies were noted for responsible coverage of domestic and international affairs, but they refrained from taking strong stands on local political questions.
All aspects of radio and television broadcasting, such as operating hours, content, programs, advertising, and technical requirements, were set by the Broadcasting Directing Board, which was under the Office of the Prime Minister and headed by a deputy prime minister. In 1987 the country had 275 national and local radio stations. The Public Relations Department, under the Office of the Prime Minister, was responsible for Radio Thailand and the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT). NBT was the official government broadcasting station, which transmitted local and international news mandatorily broadcast on all stations. News was also broadcast daily in nine foreign languages over Radio Thailand’s World Service. Radio stations were run also as commercial enterprises by such government agencies as the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand; units of the army, the navy, and the air force; the police; the ministries of communications and education; and several state universities. In 1985 there were 7.7 million radio sets in use.
As a major official channel of communication, all television stations avoided controversial viewpoints and independent political comment in their programming. The Army Signal Corps and the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand directly operated television channels 5 and 9. Two other channels were operated under license by private groups, the Bangkok Entertainment Company, which ran Channel 3, and the Bangkok Television Company, in charge of Channel 7. Channel 11 was operated by the government primarily as an educational station.
By 1980 television had become the dominant news medium among urban Thai. Household television set ownership (about 3.3 million sets in 1984) was as widespread as radio in all urban areas of the country. As of 1984, television exceeded radio ownership in the Center and South and was about even with radio ownership in the North and the Northeast. Nine out of ten Bangkok households had at least one television set. Ownership of color television was also widespread among urban Thai in the South (58 percent), Bangkok (54 percent), the Northeast (49 percent), the central plain (47 percent), and the North (43 percent).