In a rare display of unity, various media organizations in Thailand have joined ranks in opposing a government bill that threatens to further undermine press freedom in the country.
The proposed “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards” bill is drafted by the National Reform Steering Assembly. But after analyzing the content of the bill, media groups and activists have warned that it could lead to total government control of the press in the country.
The bill requires journalists to get accreditation as licensed professional media workers. A National Professional Media Council will also be established to regulate the media and receive complaints against the media. The proposed council consists of 13 members including four permanent secretaries from the finance, culture and digital economy ministries plus a representative from the office of the prime minister.
Supporters of the bill said it will promote responsible journalism, but critics denounced it for in their view institutionalizing government censorship.
The Thai army grabbed power in 2014. It vowed to restore civilian rule after it drafted a constitution which guaranteed military influence in the bureaucracy. Despite the lifting of martial law, Thai media is closely monitored by the army.
Around 30 media groups signed a statement rejecting the bill:
This goes against the intent of Constitution (passed in the referendum last August) which promotes media self-regulation without state interference. The bill in its present form will directly impact the media duty to scrutinize state power and the public right to know.
Chakkrit Permpool, former chairman of the National Press Council of Thailand, is worried that the bill could entrench dictatorship in society:
This kind of thing exists only under dictatorship governments. This is against the new constitution backed by the referendum that ensures media freedom and people's freedom of expression.
The Bangkok Post published an editorial questioning the presence of government officials in a press panel:
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.
New media, changing public perception and an ever-evolving society ensure that press reform will continue, and government control can in no way make it better.
Thai journalists are urging the government to reconsider the bill. They also invited the public to support the campaign on social media by posting the photo of a chained dove (see photo at the top of the post) which symbolizes the muzzling of the press.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance also issued a statement in solidarity to the protest organized by Thai journalists:
The so-called media reform bill may effect a total control of the Thai press – not only of the media outlets but also of journalists in the country. It is also a major step backward of more than 20 years of the media reform process that the Thai journalist community fought for to democratize media space from state monopoly, and toward diversity and access to information.