The BBC World Service has stopped broadcasting from one of its major global transmission stations in Thailand, after talks broke down with a junta riled by its uncensored coverage.
Sources with knowledge of the negotiations said the BBC’s Thai-language output was an obstacle in discussions about renewing the 20-year lease on the complex, the network’s main shortwave broadcast station for Asia.
The suspension comes as the World Service rolls out its largest foreign-language expansion for decades. The center’s large red-and-white transmission towers in Nakhon Sawan, 240km north of Bangkok, beamed local-language news into tightly controlled countries, such as China and North Korea, and into places where many still rely on radio like Pakistan and Afghanistan
However, it went off air on Jan. 1 following the expiry of the lease.
“Despite extensive negotiations, we have been unable to reach an agreement to recommence transmissions,” the BBC said in a statement.
The BBC World Service, part funded by the British government, but editorially independent, produces uncensored news in 29 languages.
The Asia transmission station was moved to Thailand from Hong Kong in 1997 after the territory was handed back to China.
The BBC did not give details of why the talks broke down, but two sources said its Thai-language service had become a sore point.
Thailand’s royalist establishment was incensed by a profile of new King Maha Vajiralongkorn which the BBC Thai service published following the October death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thailand’s monarchy is protected from scrutiny by a ferociously enforced lese majeste law, forcing media inside the kingdom to heavily self-censor.
The unvarnished profile was published out of the BBC’s London office. It went viral in a country unused to seeing unfiltered reporting of its monarchy.
A dissident student leader was charged with royal defamation for sharing the profile, the first prosecution under Vajiralongkorn’s reign.
Thai government spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd confirmed discussions had faltered, but did not say why.
“It is still unclear whether the contract would be extended or not extended,” he said.
Thailand’s 2014 coup brought to power a group of ultra-royalist generals who stamped down on dissent and cramped media freedoms.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, said the difficulties faced by the BBC illustrate how Thailand had become a “more problematic place for media companies,” a trend that has worsened under the latest military government.
“The longer the military regime is entrenched, the more damage we’ll see to basic Thai freedoms,” he said.
In its statement the BBC said it had been able to absorb the fallout of the closed Thai station by “transmitting non-English services via shortwave from other locations”.
The timing of the closure comes as the World Service plans to increase its output to 40 foreign languages, near its post-World War II peak of 45. After years of slashing funding, the British government announced an additional US$352 million for the 2015 to 2020 period.
The move was partly a response to the huge expansion of state-sponsored media competitors in countries such as Russia, China and the Middle East.
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