Media back to total state control

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) briefing paper on the “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, and Promotion of Ethics and Professional Standards” bill, also known as the “media control bill” (latest draft as April 2017)

As part of the national reform initiative (adopted by the National Council for Peace and Order), the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) Subcommittee on Mass Media Communication drafted the Media Control Bill to be used by the military junta as one of the legal tools implementing “media reform.”

The bill in its current form would institutionalize the state censorship of all media including online publications and social media networks.

Summary of key points in the bill:

1. Registration, licensing scheme
(See sections 6, 7, 30)

The National Professional Media Council (to be established by this legislation) requires all media outlets to register with the agency by submitting documents that include the following details and requirements: name of the organization, nationality, address, objective, organization’s ethics committee (proof of existence by means of announcement or order), code of ethical conduct, internal regulation on a complaint system, name list of media workers.

The bill requires media outlets and practitioners to get an accreditation as a “licensed professional” from the Council.

Sections 91 (practitioners) and 92 (outlets) state that working without license is punishable up to three years in prison or fined up to 60,000 baht (USD 1,700), or both.

2. Defining ‘professional media’ is problematic
(See section 3, paragraph 2 and section 13)

In this bill, “professional media” is defined as: “Anyone, who works as a medium to impart news and information, messages, and contents for all kinds of public interest, to a mass audience, in any form on routine or regular basis, in return for a regular remuneration from media owners or earns revenue for such action, either directly or indirectly.”

The definition is broad and sweeping putting anyone who practices media and journalism under government regulation, and at risk of facing sanctions for doing their work. This is open to interpretation that may lead to discrimination and/or allow the targeting of critics.

The draft defines a “professional media organization” as: comprised of no less than 10 media outlets and/or has no less than 500 media workers.

3. A state-sanctioned ‘National Professional Media Council’
(See sections 30, 40, 85, 89)

The bill establishes a state institution called the “National Professional Media Council” responsible for monitoring and regulating media and journalism practice. The draft states that two state representatives are included as members of the Council.

As proposed, the Council have administrative powers over all media outlets including media professional organizations, journalists’ associations and groups. The Council sets the media code of ethics and professional standards. Should media outlets and practitioners fail to follow these rules and regulations, the Council has authority to cancel or revoke registrations and licenses.

4. The regulatory, complaint system
(See sections 17, 18, 30, 73, 89)

In this bill, there are three levels of jurisdiction responsible for investigating violations of media ethics and professional misconduct: media outlets, professional media organizations, and the National Professional Media Council.

A complaint can be filed before the media outlets or the professional media organizations for consideration. The professional media organizations can forward complaints to concerned media outlets, which are given 15 days to respond. If the media outlets fail to act, the complainant can refer the case to the professional media organizations of which the concerned outlet is a member. The professional media organizations have to answer within another period of 15 days.

If both levels fail to deliver justice or remedy to the complainant, the latter can appeal to the National Professional Media Council. (See sections 30 [3], 73)

Media outlets or practitioners, which and whose “memberships” have been withdrawn, cannot address complaints by themselves and have to be put under the scrutiny of the Council. (See section 30 [4])

The Council exercises control over media outlets and practitioners, and professional media organizations: to blame, condemn, or remedy for complaints; publish, air, make the public aware of the Council’s rulings; and/or renounce registration or licenses. Not following the Council’s order could result to a fine of up to 150,000 baht (USD 4,300).

Despite these complaint mechanisms in the bill, media outlets and/or practitioners are not protected from criminal or civil lawsuits as the proposed law does not preclude the filing of cases in court.