BBC's Thai transmission towers fall silent as junta talks falter

The BBC World Service has stopped broadcasting from one of its major global transmission stations situated in Thailand, AFP has learned, 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, one of the network's main shortwave broadcast stations for Asia.

The suspension comes as the World Service rolls out its largest foreign-language expansion for decades.

The centre's large red and white transmission towers in Nakhon Sawan 150 miles (240 kilometres) 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

But it went off air on January 1 following the expiry of the lease.

"Despite extensive negotiations, we have been unable to reach an agreement to re-commence transmissions," the BBC said in a statement.

The BBC World Service, part-funded by the British government but editorially independent, currently produces uncensored news in 29 languages.

The Asia transmission station moved to Thailand from Hong Kong in 1997 after the city 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.

- Unvarnished reporting -

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.

Sansern Kaewkumnerd, head of Thailand's government Public Relations Department, confirmed discussions had faltered but did not say why.

"It is still unclear whether the contract would be extended or not extended," he said.

But foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee said there were "no sticking points" and that the BBC had made a "unilateral decision to terminate the negotiating process without consulting the Thai side".

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 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.

It 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".

Within Asia, the network owns transmission sites in Singapore and Oman.

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 $352 million for the 2015-2020 period.

The move was partly a response to the huge expansion of state-sponsored media competitors in countries like Russia, China and the Middle East.

The extra money is aimed at increasing local-language broadcasts to countries like North Korea, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Russia.

The cash injection also went towards hiring extra BBC Thai staff, both in Bangkok and London.