On Press Day: Media must continue to be free and independent for democracy

As the Thai Press Day* is marked today, 5 March 2017, the media must continue its daily battle to remain free and independent amid the growing crackdown on hard-fought rights.

There were gains over these years of struggle. The recognition of the people’s right to free expression including the guarantee of press freedom and access to information in Thailand’s 1997 Constitution being one of them. This sent a strong signal that the country and its people value the role of the media in society, particularly in holding accountable the powers that be.

Understanding that this freedom comes with responsibility, the media in Thailand worked to abide by ethical principles and follow professional standards. Early on media groups and workers believed in self-regulation establishing the National Press Council of Thailand (NPCT) and pushed for a creation of  constitutionally-guaranteed independent broadcast regulatory body in place of state censorship and control. The second country in the region after the Philippines, Thailand adopted these mechanisms to regulate the print and broadcast media respectively.

Over a decade of political turmoil and changing media landscape, these self-regulatory mechanisms face a number of challenges and implementation issues, among other things, public criticism against media ethical lapses. Strict media state regulation measures for all media have been imposed by the the National Council for Peace and Order since the May 2014 coup.

The NPCT remains intact but is weak and struggling to make itself relevant and effective.

Apart from the economic and political discussions, the emergence and rapid growth of information and communications technology has further pushed the media community to self-evaluate: how to remain relevant in the digital age and be capable of credibly managing its own affairs.

Should the media in Thailand fail to address its decreasing credibility and demonstrate its commitment to public service, further state intervention is inevitable. As demonstrated by the initiative of the National Reform Steering Assembly’s committee on science and information technology, a draft bill has been introduced to create a national Media Professional Council with state representation and financial support, the power issue media licenses – thus determine who could work as professional media workers – and imposing sanctions complaints against media outlets and workers.  

Instead of upholding the Constitutional guarantee of free expression and press freedom, further media regulations and restrictions hamper the development of media in Thailand. Not only do these recent proposals undermine the media’s autonomy, these efforts threaten the people’s rights to know and free speech.

The draft bill should serve as a wake-up call to the Thai media community – across media, whether traditional or new media; regardless of position, whether owner, publisher, content producer, editor, reporter, photographer; notwithstanding representation, whether mainstream, special interest, or alternative – to unite against this bill.

Press freedom is now being pushed to a corner but the media community should not allow the last bastion of democracy to fall without a fight.

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*The Thai Press Day marks the 62nd anniversary of journalists coming together to found the Thai Reporters Association.

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