PM's Office insists iTV must pay fine in 45 days
Attorney-general calls for talks on penalty
The Prime Minister's Office, a contract partner with the iTV station, is determined to impose a 45-day deadline for iTV to pay the office its concession fee and fine amounting to 99.97 billion baht. ''At this stage, we must only abide by the Supreme Administrative Court's ruling and implement it quickly,'' said Chulayut Hiranyawasit, permanent secretary of the PM's Office, at a press conference in response to the Wednesday verdict by the Supreme Administrative Court.
Mr Chulayut said payment must be made within 45 days, but noted that the office is willing to extend the deadline by another 45 days if iTV is unable to pay.
He said his office submitted the dispute on the calculation method of annual fee and fine to the Office of the Attorney-General shortly after the ruling in May by the Central Administrative Court.
At the same time, he said the cabinet will consider the fate of iTV on Tuesday.
The Office of the Attoney-General yesterday gave some hope to iTV by saying it has the right to appeal and the dispute will be ruled upon by an arbitration panel.
Attorney-General Pachara Yutidhammadamrong said the contract between the PM's Office and iTV requires disputes over fees and penalties to be settled by an arbitration committee.
The PM's Office puts the penalties as of May this year at about 94 billion baht while the station argues it should not exceed 300 million baht, saying the PM's Office calculation, which relies on a news/entertainment programme ratio agreement on a daily basis was unacceptable.
But Mr Pachara said that if after 45 days of negotiation in the arbitration stage no solution could be reached, his agency would seek the court to declare iTV bankrupt. ''The pressing issue is that both parties must find a solution soon. If they fail, the station is likely to be restored as a state asset,'' he said.
Deputy Attorney-General Poramet Intarachumnum said a new arbitration panel will be set up to rule on the case if the station objects to the PM's Office's demand. He said Thongchai Prasatvanich, director-general for conflict resolution and arbitration, is examining the PM's Office document before taking the next step.
He urged both parties to negotiate on the penalty.
''The government has a reconciliation approach. If both parties feel negotiation will benefit the state, they should negotiate,'' he said.
He noted that it would be too early to discuss a bankruptcy lawsuit against the station.
iTV chairman Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisal yesterday assured his staff that their salary and welfare benefits would not be affected and he would do his best to keep the station going. He said the board would meet on Dec 29 to discuss the penalty payment and consider options.
Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, chief executive of Asia Plus Securities, has suggested iTV negotiate with the government to stay afloat rather than going bankrupt and becoming a burden on the state.
Asia Plus Securities was iTV's financial adviser during the station's market listing several years ago.
''In my opinion, the only solution for iTV is to negotiate and seek a compromise to solve this financial difficulty. The station should seek to revise its concession to make it more competitive when compared to the other players,'' he said.
If the government buys out iTV, the cost would be relatively low given the current stock price. Authorities could then delist the firm from the market and transform it into a non-profit organisation.
Shares of iTV fell the maximum 30% yesterday on the Stock Exchange of Thailand, following a 25% decline on Wednesday. The stock closed at an all-time low of 1.47 baht, down 63 satang, in trade worth 287.2 million baht.
Academic Surapol Sriwittaya, of Rangsit University, has advised that the government revoke the concession and enact a law decreeing the station as a national public television station.
Bonds should be issued to the station staff and the general public to raise funds. The 99-billion-baht penalty should be used to rehabilitate the station, he said.
''This is to free the station from the concession and monopoly and ownership by Singapore's Temasek in a legitimate way,'' he said.
He also called for removal of iTV senior board members appointed by Shin Corp.
A source at the Administrative Court yesterday doubted that the PM's Office could impose the penalty.
According to the source, the station had complied with a separate arbitration ruling made in 2004 and immediately revamped its programmes after the Supreme Administrative Court's verdict given on Wednesday.
''All the court did was revoke that arbitration committee's ruling. It doesn't obligate iTV to pay the penalty. As a matter of fact, the station didn't breach the contract. It simply complied with the arbitration,'' said the source.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was reserved about speculation the government would revert the station to state control. He also played down speculation the matter would be considered by the cabinet next Tuesday.