A draft amendment of Article 37 of the 2008 Broadcasting Act, aimed at prohibiting the broadcast of content undermining ‘national security’, the ‘constitutional monarchy system of government’, and ‘public morality’, is now undergoing public hearings while receiving wide opposition.
Academics and media associations are expressing concern over what is called the first ever regulation to prohibit television and radio from broadcasting content undermining “national security” and “public morality.” This regulation will also control how the media should produce programmes, a policy heavily criticized by media organizations.
The draft regulation will expand Article 37 of the Broadcasting Act to define more clearly terms like “national security” or “overthrowing the regime”. The draft is currently undergoing public hearings. Once passed, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC), a national body regulating radio and television frequencies and content, will implement the law.
The Broadcasting Act, passed in 2008 by the post-coup National Legislative Assembly, aims to regulate the frequencies for television and radio, as well as the content that is broadcast.
The controversial Article 37 of this Act prohibits television and radio stations from broadcasting “content which leads to the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy system of government, or affects national security, public order and morality, or content containing nudity, causing decadence or seriously harming public health.”
Kulnaree Sueroj, a journalism lecturer at Thammasat University, explained that the draft regulation, prohibiting content such as “insulting the nation,” “creating rifts in society,” or “undermining revered Thai culture” is questionable because such words are difficult to define, and interpretation could be very subjective.
“Words such as ‘overthrowing the regime’ are problematic because the regulation does not define what constitutes that. Can the news present images of people protesting? How much hatred is considered hate speech and deserves to be prohibited?” questioned Kulnaree.
The Legitimate Censorship?
Patiwat Wasigchart, a representative of the radio and television journalists association, who together with other three media associations publicly opposed the Act last month, said the regulation would allow the license holder, or the business owner, or interfere with the editorial board.
“The constitution granted the power of regulation to professional associations. So this role should belong to the media associations, not the license holders,” Patiwat said. “The Act will give content producers legitimacy in censoring themselves.”
According to the draft, the NBTC would have the authority to fine broadcasters up to 500,000 baht, withdraw licenses or shut down stations, were it to find that content prohibited in the bill was broadcast.
In June last year, the Thailand’s Got Talent show led to Channel 3 paying a 500,000 baht fine over a woman using her breasts to paint on a canvas. NBTC claimed that it undermined public morality, thus violating Article 37.
Thailand’s Got Talent episode featured women painting with bare breasts was considered
violating public morality by the NBTC
Section Two of the draft will also define how the media should produce news programmes, talk shows and game shows. Content producers must present facts and news reports in the most objective and nonpartisan way, according to the regulation. It also stated that in political talk shows, presenters must not use their own political opinions to convince the audience, and must invite all stakeholders onto the show.
Besides unavoidably affecting partisan media, like the yellow shirts’ ASTV or red shirts’ Asia Update or community radios, the act would also affect how producers determine their content.
Good ethics but impracticality for the newsroom
Noppatajak Attananont, a news reporter from Nation TV, said the regulation is not realistic as news programmes have daily deadlines, and sometimes getting all stakeholders onto the programme at once is almost impossible.
“Time for news on television is limited, so if you cannot invite all stakeholders onto the programme, you cannot present the show at all? Is this censorship?” asked Noppatajak
“The term non-partisan in the regulation could also lead to discrimination in interpretation. Even the word ‘objectivity’ is hard to define,” he said. “Eventually television may be full of nonsense, PR or celebrity news because they are not threats to the national security.”
Although the regulation seems to aim at creating a general code of conduct for the media, critics say this role should belong to professional associations, not the state, since it could open the door to censorship and interference.
Worapoj Wongkitrungruang, a researcher at NBTC Policy Watch, suggested that the NBTC should regulate, not control the media. Liberty and public interest should also be well balanced.
“The question now is how to uphold high ethical integrity in the media without too much state interference. Of course, the media associations do not always work, but in the long run, a self-regulating mechanism is the most beneficial to all stake holders,” said Worapoj
NBTC member Supinya Klangnarong said personally she disagreed with the Act, and encourages the public to give feedback and speak out against it, before it is revised and implemented some time after September.