By Saksith Saiyasombut

At 3.38pm (all times local) April 11, 2012, an earthquake occurred at the bottom of the Indian ocean west of Sumatra for a mere few minutes. The order of magnitude however was originally recorded at a very strong 8.9 (subsequently downgraded to 8.6). At 3.45pm, the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for essentially the entire coastline along the Indian ocean, who predicted the arrival of the waves on the Thai islands of Phuket, Kho Phra Thong and Kho Tarutao in a timespan of two hours beginning at 6.18pm local time. The Thai authorities issued their own warnings in six provinces and many coastal areas were evacuated, as people were urged to move to higher ground.

However, on Thai television there was hardly a hint about it. All Thai terrestrial TV channels were covering the funeral ceremony of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, a cousin of King Bhumibol and the only child of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), throughout the afternoon until they switched over for “breaking” news coverage. These TV channels were facing criticism over their failure to inform people about what was going on at the Kingdom’s Andaman coastlines during an emergency situation, where up to the minute information could have been crucial. But how could that happen?

All terrestrial TV channels (Channel 3, 5, 7, MCOT, NBT and ThaiPBS) were broadcasting the TV pool live footage produced by a joint venture of these aforementioned channels and the Royal Palace exclusively for this occasion and not, as some have suggested, by the government or a similar agency. When the first warnings about a potential tsunami were issued, all TV channels stayed on the ceremony.

Viewers were at best informed by an occasional ticker at the bottom of the screen (it could be argued that this should have been run not only in Thai but also in English, considering the many foreign tourists at the beaches) or, like in many such cases, by local radio stations and social media (and a few cable or satellite news channels like Nation Channel and Spring News) – the latter heavily criticizing the lacking TV coverage. It took two hours since the first tsunami warnings before ThaiPBS decided to pull out of the royal coverage at 5.42pm, shortly followed by a few others after 6pm.

In attempts to clarify the situation, it was explained that the Royal Palace actually allowed the TV directors to cut away from the royal ceremony “at any time.” (as mentioned here in a ThaiPBS report) Also, the National Broadcast & Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) has directly approached the TV stations and asked for their cooperation (as seen here in a letter tweeted by now-NBTC board member Supinya Klangnarong), since a regulation in such emergency cases is reportedly still being drafted.

So what prevented the broadcasters from pulling out of a royal ceremony to cover an urgent emergency situation, even though they had the apparent freedom to do so? ThaiPBS deputy director Vanchai Tantivitayapitak wrote on Facebook that the decision to pull out of the royal ceremony coverage required “presence of mind and courage” – a clear hint at a deeper-lying problem.

Since this was a funeral involving a member of the royal family, it was social pre-emptive obedience that prevented the terrestrial TV channels from reporting on the tsunami warning anytime sooner. In these times, where public loyalty to the royal institution is being demanded and any perceived move outside the norm is being heavily scrutinized (and at times punished), it is difficult to put the priorities desired by some over the essential priority to inform.

The relief, when the tsunami warnings have been lifted, was no doubt high among all involved. However, this should not dillute the failures of Thai television to comprehensively inform and report on a developing story and an emergency situation. The fears of social retribution and stigma has shown this time how restrictive they really are, even considering what would have been at stake. At least the outcome of this media episode, and its unprecedented amount of criticism, would be clarity, should such a situation happen again.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.