Thai media organizations, battling to halt a media reform bill they see imposing restrictions on press freedoms, including licensing, are pressing the military government to review the legislation.
Some 30 Thai media groups, amid fears of increased government control, met Sunday and called on the National Reform Steering Assembly (NSRA) to amend the bill, saying the law marks a major setback to media freedoms in Thailand.
Fear of government control
Thepchai Yong, president of the Confederation of Thai Journalists said the meeting aimed to galvanize the industry’s concerns over the media outlook since the military came to power in 2014.
“The objective is to voice our concern, our opposition to this new media bill that is pending on the committee for media reform which we think is quite, quite dangerous in the sense that it would give the power to censor the media to the state,” Thepchai told VOA.
Fears are focused on a proposed law
The draft bill, widely criticized by Thai and English language mainstream media, covers rights protection, ethical promotion and standards of media professionals. A new national media council will include both top bureaucrats of four ministries “to order and guide media reform,” The Bangkok Post said in an editorial.
“Government presence on a press panel and licensing of journalists are never part of a free press. The media and the public it serves are capable of continuing to reform the press, which has never stopped,” the paper added.
Current system is not perfect
The bill would replace a system of self-regulation that media organizations say ensures both media responsibility and meeting the public’s changing demands.
Some media analysts say the system of self-regulation has on occasion fallen short. Thepchai acknowledges public faith in the mainstream media has also been affected by Thailand’s polarized political climate and often partisan reporting.
New bill would register journalists and force them to carry an identity card
A controversial aspect of the bill requires media personnel and reporters to be registered, carry a media identity card with the threat of losing their registration and heavy fines for ethical breaches.
“If they are successful with this legislation it would be the first time that the system of media licensing will be introduced in Thailand and this is something we believe is quite scary because it would subject the media to the control of the authorities,” Thepchai told VOA.
He said if the new bill succeeded “a Big Brother” would watch over journalists and their organizations.
The tighter media controls are similar to laws in Singapore and Malaysia, says Edgardo Legaspi, director of the South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), and marks a major step back for Thai media.
Analysts say the proposed law threatens press freedom
“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.
He said the legislation represented the “shutting down” of one of the freest media in Asia, calling for “solidarity among Thai journalists “to fight against this proposed bill”.
Government says protests will have little effect
But Kanit Suwannate, chairman of the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) – who holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal, said the protests were unlikely to impact the panel’s deliberations.
Kanit told local media it was “controversial” to say the law will allow state interference in the work of the media.
“But we have to understand that the country has a government and the government has to take charge, together with the private sector to ensure social order,” he said.
He added “major changes to the draft bill were unlikely, but proposals from the panel members and comments from media organizations would be “carefully reviewed”.
International standards threatened
Piyanuch Kosot, Thai representative for Amnesty International, said Thailand as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has to uphold international standards.
“We try to understand the purpose of these reforms and basically the reform is just to control the media – which I understand is at the final stage. Our concern is that the bill they are going to pass has to be under the standard pf the ICCPR or the international human rights law,” Piyanuch said.
Thailand’s once vibrant and active media has been curbed due to the changing media landscape and a weak economy.
Strict laws on covering the royal family
Since the military came to power in 2014 there has also been a tightening of laws governing computer crimes and a crackdown on online media, backed by Thailand’s tough lese majeste laws protecting the Royal Family from criticism and defamation.
The New York based Human Rights Watch says since May 2014, authorities have charged at least 68 persons with lese majeste, largely for posting or sharing comments online, and leading to many lengthy prison sentences.
While the latest legislation largely focuses on mainstream media, Arthit Suriyawongkul, from the Thai Netizen Network, said the laws may have wider implications for bloggers and citizen reporters.
“There’s the possibility it could be extended to netizens and citizen reporters or bloggers or users in general as well. And I think that will be very worrying because – yes we agree that there are blogs probably no longer considered citizen reporters,” Arthit said.
But Thai Broadcast Journalists Association president Thepchai said he is not optimistic a civilian government will overturn the tighter media controls once elected into power.
“This is exactly what politicians would love to have and the junta is putting this on a silver platter for the politicians waiting in the wings to return to power,” he said.