THAILAND’S National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) will make a decision today on a controversial media regulation bill that has been criticised by local media as being a form of state control.
Thirty media organisations in Thailand came together to express their concern against the impending bill that they say could curtail press freedom further in a country that already struggles with extreme censorship.
The collection of media organisations, which included The National Union of Journalists of Thailand (NUJT) and Thai Journalists Association (TJA), were joined by the International Federation of Journalists and the South East Asia Journalist Unions on Tuesday in their denunciation of the bill that they say is not based on principles of free press.
The junta-appointed NRSA media reform panel insisted on pushing through the controversial media regulation bill on Monday despite the calls from media groups to scrap it.
It is being presented once again to the NRSA today for further deliberations. If endorsed, the draft will be forwarded to parliament for final approval.
The NRSA remains adamant the measure is not designed to constrain freedom of the press but media outlets have genuine and real concerns that, if passed into law, it will directly affect the media’s role in scrutinising the state and hinder the public’s right to gain access to information.
“The NRSA’s draft law can lead to conditions that allow interference in the media’s work,” TJA president Wanchai Wongmeechai said. “This is not media reform but an attempt to control the media.”
A crucial point of concern is that the bill will include the establishment of a “national media profession council” that will be empowered to penalise media outlets that violate the code of conduct. Four of the 13 members of this council will be government members, namely the permanent secretaries of finance, digital economy and society, culture, and the Office of the Prime Minister.
Another controversial aspect of the bill is the requirement for all media professionals – including journalists, news readers, radio presenters, television hosts – to be registered, gain a licence and to carry a media identity card, with the threat of losing their registration and heavy fines for ethical breaches.
The conditions for issuing and revoking the licence will be decided by the national media profession council.
This has understandably led to outcry from those concerned with press freedom in the country.
Edgardo Legaspi, director of the South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), expressed concern that it was a major step in the wrong direction for Thai media, calling the bill a “death blow” to media freedom.
— SEAPA (@seapabkk) January 31, 2017
“The media reform bill might actually result in the ability to control who gets to publish newspapers or who gets to report news or not. Actually it’s like a 40 year plus leap backward since 1973, when the 1973 democratic movement removed the authority of the military to shut down the papers,” Legaspi said.
The media groups have acknowledged the need for ethical regulation in the industry but claim that they have been taking substantial steps towards self-governing and decry any involvement from the government.
“We’re not against ethical regulations but they should be self-regulation. The bill will make way for political intervention because the permanent secretaries are appointed by politicians,” Confederation of Thai Journalists president, Thepchai Yong, told the Bangkok Post.
He said the bill, which empowers the council to order and guide media reform, is tantamount to signing a blank cheque and fears have been ignited that the repercussions could be disastrous to a press that is already burdened by the amended Computer Crime Act and the lese majeste laws.
Chartchai Na Chiangmai, a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), told the Bangkok Post on Wednesday that he believes the bill could breach the new constitution which supports media self-regulation and independence from state control.
“Section 35 of the new constitution clearly states that media professionals have the right to present information, and express opinions in accordance with professional ethics,” he said, adding that this right cannot be breached. “Censorship is not allowed either, except during wartime,” he said.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has often been accused of being anti-press and was labelled as a ‘Predator of Press Freedom’ by Reporters Without Borders for the last two years running.
The report pointed out that Chan-ocha “has gagged not only reporters, bloggers and news outlets, but also performers, intellectuals, academics, opposition politicians and anyone regarded as overly critical of himself and his junta.”
The “Freedom of the Press” report – published annually by Freedom House – downgraded the country from “partly free” to “not free” in 2013, and claims that press freedom continued to deteriorate in 2015 following the 2014 military coup.
It is unlikely to improve its position any time soon, and may even find its score slip further, given that the generals have gifted themselves almost unlimited power and continue to hand down numerous particularly harsh sentences for the notorious lese majeste law, which prohibits criticism of the monarchy.
Human Rights Watch says since the 2014 coup, authorities have charged at least 68 persons with lese majeste, largely for posting or sharing comments online, many of which resulted in lengthy prison sentences with some as long as 15 years. Critics fear the law is being purely as a tool with which to silence dissenters.
The fear is that the new media bill will be yet another instrument with which Chan-ocha can punish those that express any level of opposition to his position or policies, leaving the press hobbled in their attempts to produce critical analysis of the ruling party.
Those with a concern for the impartiality of Thailand’s press should take note, today’s decision from the NRSA could have a lasting impact on an industry already struggling for its liberty. If approved, fears will be reignited that the ruling military junta is resolutely tightening the noose on civil liberties, the right to dissent and freedom of the press.