The National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) and the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) have proposed separate bills on the “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards.” The original proposal came from the government’s Public Relations Department (PRD) under the Office of the Prime Minister. A cabinet resolution on 8 March 2016 approved on principle a draft assigning the NRSA and NLA to conduct parallel studies for a bill.
As of now, the draft bills of both junta-appointed bodies outline very similar proposals that would restrict instead of enhance media freedom in Thailand. The drafts are nearly finished, both would require “professional” media workers to carry a “license” and media organizations to have permits to operate news services. The drafts would also introduce a “National Professional Media Council” to manage a registry for and a complaints mechanism on the (mis)use of the media.
The significant points in the drafts are the following:
1. Registration of media outlets and journalists
According to the proposals, a media outlet has to register with a “professional media organization” which will issue a license for running the media service. This proposal departs from the current Press Registration Act of 2007 that merely oversees a system of recording print media being established and published in the country. The 2007 law does not include registration of outlets in other medium such as broadcast and online. It has not been cleared yet what kind of media would be included in these bills. But the intention of the law is to regulate online media and noninstitutionalized media.
According to one draft, the National Professional Media Council needs to recognize the “professional media organization” (see below). To be approved, such an organization needs members from at least ten media outlets and a total of 500 media workers.
A “licensed” media outlet can then issue an identification (ID) card for a “professional media worker” under its employ. Presently, there is no such system to license journalists in the Thai press. Journalists normally represent their respective media outlets when covering the news, and they may do this with or without a press card.
The proposed system poses a problem for freelance journalists, who are not permanently employed by media outlets and usually work independently. Also, independent media outlets – which are mostly online – work outside of the existing media professional organizations.
2. The law would establish a National Professional Media Council
The draft bills propose a National Professional Media Council, which would subsume all existing, mostly voluntary self-regulation systems within news outlets and industry councils or associations.
The National Media Professional Council would have 13 members: five representatives from professional media organizations, and the four permanent secretaries of the ministries of Digital Economy and Society, Culture, Finance, and the Office of the Prime Minister; these nine members would appoint the four remaining members of the council.
The proposed council would have the authority to issue and withdraw a media outlet’s license and a media worker’s press identification card.
Moreover, it would have the task to monitor and set the ethical standards for the media and its workers.
The council would have a mechanism to receive complaints on media “abuses” and when members of the media “are abused.”
3. The draft will set an official ‘Media Ethical Standard’
The drafts have set general principles on the ethical standards of the media: accuracy, balance and presenting “all sides” of the story. The NLA draft has additional criteria on reporting related to “social morality” and revealing “state secrets.”
While journalists have existing codes of ethics, the “Media Ethical Standards” as drafter pose potential issues and problems in the practice of journalism. For example, the requirement to present “all sides” of the story can be used arbitrarily especially when media coverage involve politically and culturally sensitive issues. This may cause the journalist to be penalized or even have her/his “license” withdrawn. Prohibitions on violating “social morality” and revealing “state secrets” can lead to more self-censorship rather than serve the public interest and the right to access state-held information.
4. An enforceable complaints system
The National Professional Media Council will establish a three-tier complaint mechanism for media misconduct, as follows:
First: When a media worker is accused of misconduct, the media outlet must consider the case.
Second: When a media outlet is accused of misconduct, the respective professional media organization must consider the case.
Third: If a media is not a member of the National Professional Media Council, or if a media outlet ignores a complaint, the council’s Media Ethics Committee under the council will take over the case.
An NRSA draft proposed fines of up to 150,000 baht (~USD 4000) as a maximum penalty for the media misconduct and can withdraw the ID cards or the media license.
5. State funding
The proposed National Professional Media Council would be funded from state sources: member fees; fines; 5 percent of revenue/budget of the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TPBS) which submits to the government (but not exceeding 50 million baht [~USD1.4 million); and from research and development funds for broadband network development projects under the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).
Such an institution establishes a state-controlled mechanism over the media, since none of the drafts explicitly states that the council will be an “independent body,” similar to an audit or a human rights commission. Furthermore, with such a huge budget staffing of the council may be prone to nominees from government, political and private interests.
The Bills (in Thai):
“The proposed bill on the Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards”, National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), updated on 13 January 2017.
“The proposed bill on the Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards”, National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), updated on 9 January 2017.
“The proposed bill on the Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards”, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), updated on December 2016.
The committees’ reports (in Thai);
The NRSA Subcommittee on Mass Media Communication and the NRSA Subcommittee on Anti-Corruption Committee. “Report on the Professional Media’s Ethical Standard Problems”. NRSA, April 2016.
The Subcommitte on Mass Media Reform. “Summary of the meeting No. 2/2016“. The Committee on Science, IT and Mass Communication, NLA, 2016.
———. “Summary of the meeting No. 15/2016“. The Committee on Science, IT and Mass Communication, NLA, 2016.
———. “Summary of the meeting No. 18/2016“. The Committee on Science, IT and Mass Communication, NLA, 2016.
Corben, Ron. “Thai Media Legislation Triggers Protests.” VOA, January 30, 2017.
Mokkhasen, Sasiwan. “Thailand’s Media Protests Law to ‘License’ All Journalists” Khaosod English, January 27, 2017.
Theppajorn, Khanittha, and Kasamakorn Chanwanpen. “Media to Crank up Opposition against Controversial Oversight by Govt Panel” The Nation, January 31, 2017.