Legal Aspects: Public Service Broadcasting

Reinhard Kuene

In this discussion I would like to clarify some misunderstandings we often come across when discussing public service broadcasting.

The first misunderstanding goes like this. I was asked by a broadcaster from the Pacific a while ago, what in my eyes would be the single most important element in a system of public service broadcasting? My immediate answer was: the broadcast council, because the broadcast council is where society at large should be represented and involved. My partner from the Pacific was shocked and he told me, "Well, then we have the same politicians who push us around already now on that council and they again tell us what to do. So, what is the difference?"

There is indeed a big difference, if and when the legal basics are clearly and correctly established. I will discuss this again later in this article.

Second misunderstanding : some months ago, I attended a conference of the World Bank in Washington. World Bank dealt for the first time with the world of broadcasting in development. In order to do a good job, World Bank specialists had prepared a study on the broadcast situation in 69 countries around the world. Looking at the study a little closer, we found out that there are only two categories of broadcasting viz. commercial and government controlled.

I asked the World Bank people,"What about the BBC, ARD, NHK, CBS and all the other public service broadcasters? Did you forget them or do you anticipate that they are going to disappear?"

Mr. Frank Vogl of the World Bank, who served many years as its Information Director, replied,"Well, you see, the BBC has many times in history accepted the government orders often enough to be counted among the government controlled systems."

This caused some unrest in the conference hall. I queried, "Do you really want to throw the BBC into the same basket as broadcasting in North Korea or Afghanistan?"

Eventually, he conceded that there is a difference and that there is a need to have a third category of broadcasting, besides commercial and government controlled, and that such a sector as public service broadcasting does exist.

PSB in developing countries
The third misunderstanding we often come across is that, when discussing public service broadcasting, people in developing countries tell us that "This is a good idea but it does not work with us; especially, the idea of a licence fee does not work in our context because it leads to more corruption, a bigger bureaucracy and it simply does not work"

We have a proverb in German saying that every comparison is limping. This is a typical case that what might work in Germany and Britain might not work in other places. But nobody has prevented us from adapting or reshaping newly developing ideas to fit the situation rather than copying something from elsewhere. We can examine, for example, the Turkish example where the licence fee is added to the electricity bill and that solves the problem of establishing a new bureaucracy and a legal basis for it.

Coming back to the question of the basic legal requirements, I am convinced that public service broadcasting will work and prosper in the long run only if the basic rights of freedom of expression and
press freedom are guaranteed. These are the fundamental rights which have to be claimed, tested and exercised. I take the example of the German situation and the German constitution; however, we find many other constitutions making similar provisions and, at the international level, we have the rights stipulated by the famous Article 19 and the 1984 (48) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the legal experts also agree that current constitutional provisions do not suffice; they need to be supported by parliament, by government and, above all, by a judiciary which gives support to constitutional guarantees and which helps protect the rights of freedom of expression.

Once this is in place, the next step can be taken to create a framework for the media in general and that too needs to be done by Parliament. The next step would be to fix the conditions for broadcasting as a specific form of communication (we can leave aside other media for this discussion).Going back to the German example, we can see that the individual states of the Union are in charge of broadcasting and have designed the legal framework to define what kind of broadcasting they would accept in their territory. It is clear that three different categories of networks have been allowed to co-exist and to prosper: commercial, public service and not-for-profit community or small broadcast media.

The German example

In Annexure 1 B, we see an example of how such a system of public service broadcasting is organised. It has been taken from Northern Germany where four states of the federation have jointly set up a public service broadcasting network This one gives you an example of rules and regulations and especially of the composition and the tasks of the broadcasting council. Here we can perceive the difference which addresses the first misunderstanding regarding PSB I referred to earlier. The tasks are described in some detail and it is evident that interference in the day-to-day work of the broadcaster is not allowed, The broadcaster is independent and free within the framework set by the broadcasting council to do his or her daily work without any direct interference from the council. It is also interesting to see how this council of fifty-eight members is composed. We find representatives of churches, trade unions, sports associations, women's groups, NGOs and many other organisations representing civil society. Politicians and leaders of political parties are also included, but they are always a minority.

Now, you may say, I am from Thailand and we have very few Catholics or Protestants. Your broadcasting council, or whatever body created for this purpose, should mirror your particular cultural social, ethnic, economic and religious profile.

Part Four of the Annexure introduces another important body you can find in most of the public broadcasting networks: the administrative council. This council under any law is an institution that must be there to fulfill certain management and administrative functions.

I have taken an example from yet another regional German network to illustrate the entire system but of course you cannot restrict yourself to regional programming and regional entities only; most often you also need nationwide channels. In the German case, the foundation was laid at the regional level and then the nationwide structure was built on top of it. But we also have an example of creating a nationwide channel from the very beginning without regional outlets i.e. ZDF, the second German television network.

I have provided as Annexures the legal background of both the German systems i.e. regional broadcasters and the nationwide system established as the second German public service channel. I hope this would provide a point of reference to help Thailand design her own unique broadcasting structure to meet the needs of this beautiful and culturally rich nation.


Reinhard Keune is the Chairman of the International Programme for Development Communication and Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He is currently based in Geneva.