Representatives of seven political parties seeking to contest the much-anticipated poll this year hold a copy of the TJA open letter appealing for their support of the media organization's call for the immediate repeal of the four NCPO special orders restricting media freedom in Thailand.

[Thailand] An earnest plea for media freedom ahead of the national vote

Political parties say NCPO special orders must be revoked

Amid continuing restrictions to the media in Thailand, there is one question that political parties contesting the anticipated general election, initially scheduled for February 24, must confront – what do they plan to do about the ongoing restrictions on the media imposed by the ruling military junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)?

In general, the parties expressed agreement that such restrictions must be lifted to ensure a meaningful vote, which has been tentatively reset to March 24.

An open letter to key political parties vying to run in the next poll has urged the latter to support a call for the immediate repeal of all four orders by the NCPO that severely limit media freedom and free expression in Thailand. (The TJA letter is available online in Thai.)

The Thai Journalists Association (TJA), which seeks to promote freedom of expression and the protection of the press, presented the letter to representatives of political parties — a mix of pro-government and opposition, including new, parties — during a public forum on 23 December 2018.

The proposed lifting will usher in a “genuine democratic environment” in Thailand, said TJA.

The special orders in question, namely, NCPO Order No. 97/2014, NCPO Order No.103/2014, NCPO Head Order No. 3/2015, and NCPO Head Order No. 41/2016, prevent media coverage of issues seen as undermining national security, including lese majeste and criticism of NCPO officials and the government. They also provide broad interpretation of disinformation and defamation, and grant excessive powers to implementing authorities to censor media content – far exceeding those wielded by the authorities following the previous coups d’état, according to Chakrit Permpool, advisor to TJA. Chakrit stressed the urgency to repeal these restrictive measures before the election.

He recalled that in previous dispensations it took more than a decade to repeal just one order, citing the Revolutionary Council Order No. 42, which, enacted in 1973, was used to censor the media. It was only repealed in 1990, or 17 years later.

Representatives of seven political parties who graced the forum agreed all existing regulations restricting freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Thailand must be revoked ahead of the national vote that is expected between February 24 and May 9, 2019.

The parties acknowledged that media freedom was guaranteed under Article 35 of the 2017 Constitution and therefore should be respected, saying a free and independent media and public access to information were vital to democracy.

Scrapping these restriction would help restore confidence in the country, which landed 140th (out of 180 countries) on the 2018 World Press Index, two notches higher than its previous year’s performance, but which was still considered low.

Present at the TJA event were representatives of the Democratic Party, Puea Thai Party, New Future Forward Party, Chat Thai Pattana Party, Chat Pattana Party, Puea Chat Part, and Thai Raksa Chat Party. Pro-military parties including Palang Pracharat Party declined the invitation from TJA.

Laddawan Wongsriwong from Puea Thai said the sphere of control authorized by the NCPO special orders was insidious as these allowed a transfer of the power to restrict media content from the NCPO to government agencies such as the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commissions, which are tasked to regulate broadcast and online media outlets.

Nikorn Chamnong of Chat Thai Pattana Party said repealing the controversial NCPO orders curbing press freedom would prevent the NCPO and the rest of the government from using those regulations against opposition political parties and to benefit their own.

Pannika Wanich, party spokeswoman of the Future Forward Party, said the most damaging aspect of these orders is that under Section 279 of the Constitution, the authorities concerned including the NCPO are absolved of any legal responsibility for actions arising from the implementation of those orders.

During the TJA forum, the majority of the parties represented preferred the NCPO use its special power under Section 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution to repeal the NCPO orders. But due process must be observed in effecting this change, said Pannika, given the controversy surrounding Section 44, which remains in force until a new government is elected.

Section 44 grants the junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha absolute power to issue orders that he thinks will “strengthen public unity and harmony” or to prevent any act that undermines public peace.

Pannika suggested the NCPO and the government freeze the NCPO orders in question and allow an anticipated administrative order to regulate the coming elections. She said amendments to the constitution and existing NCPO orders should be a joint task of the newly elected government and parliament.

Photo above: Representatives of seven political parties seeking to contest the much-anticipated poll this year hold a copy of the TJA open letter appealing for their support of the media organization’s call for the immediate repeal of the four NCPO special orders restricting media freedom in Thailand.

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