Thai government moving to regulate opinion polls?

18 October 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Survey groups, researchers, media practitioners, politicians, and private citizens in Thailand are voicing concern over a government proposal that would purport to impose standards on public opinion surveys.

Bangkok’s English-language daily, “The Nation” in its18 October edition quoted the government’s House lobbyist, Pongthep Thepkanchana as saying that a proposed amendment to Thailand’s 1965 Statistics Act is merely intended to ensure the quality of surveys, especially those touching on the political climate and socio-economic issues in the country.

But oppositionists and members of the press, alongside private groups that conduct such surveys, raised fears that the bill is in fact designed to control public opinion and public access to information.

They also questioned the government’s motives for suddenly putting the proposal on the legislative agenda. They noted that the proposed amendments were actually drafted two years ago, but have been dusted off at a time when the incumbent government’s popularity—as indicated by public opinion polls—is in decline.

The move to amend the Statistics Act has been calendared for debate in Thailand’s House of Representatives on 19 October.

Dr. Noppadol Kanika, director of ABAC Poll, one of the country’s leading and most influential survey groups, in a statement acknowledged the need to raise his industry’s standards for Thailand’s overall competitiveness, but he warned that several proposed amendments and potential new articles could allow the government to control public statistics and sanitize information.

Under one proposed amendment—Article 9—for example, all government agencies—including state universities and local administration offices—will have to submit any proposed surveys to the National Statistical Office (NSO) five days prior actually conducting any public polling.

The bill also proposes to introduce a fine of 5,000 baht (about US$ 125) on people who refuse to give information or who obstruct officials conducting officially sanctioned surveys.

The proposed amendment to Article 20 meanwhile will penalize pollsters who give “false information”, by slapping them with six-month imprisonment and/or fines of up to 10,000 baht (US$250). The current law provides for penalties of three months imprisonment and fines of up to 500 baht (US$12.50).

Oppositionists, private pollsters, and media groups are additionally concerned that the NSO’s mandate would be broadened to policing private survey firms. They noted that the proposed bill will allow the NSO to have other tasks and responsibilities as “assigned by the Cabinet.”

Popular Thai pollsters like ABAC, Dusit Poll and Bangkok Poll, which all belong to academic institutions, have gained acceptance, prominence, and influence in Thailand for snap polls that gauge Thai’s prevailing political and social pulse. Their surveys on current issues are regularly featured by the Thai press, and have become crucial barometers of public opinion, especially on politics and crucial social issues.

The government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has criticized and dismissed these polling operations as “biased” and unscientific. He questions their motives and methodologies every time poll results tend to put his government, policies, and popularity in a negative light.