The military-appointed National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) is proposing a bill that will create a media regulatory body to impose additional regulations for the media in Thailand.
The bill on the “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards” is being vetted by the NRSA Subcommittee on Mass Media Communication, which presented the proposed law to journalist and media groups two weeks ago.
Around 15 professional media groups met on 12 September 2016 to determine their response to the proposal. In a statement released after the meeting, they said the bill should it pass into law “could leave a loophole for political and business entities to interfere with the media’s work, which ultimately would affect the people’s right to information.”
Some of the groups included the Thai Journalists Association, Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, National Press Council of Thailand, News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, Society of Online News Providers, and Thailand Cable TV Association.
Those present at the meeting expressed concerns particularly with the establishment of a National Professional Media Council, which could allow government to intervene in the work of the media. The groups said they still prefer self-regulation mechanisms over state-sanctioned controls.
Toward state regulation
At the outset, the NRSA proposed bill aims more to regulate the media than to protect its rights and freedom.
The proposed National Professional Media Council under the current bill shall define professional standards — according to the general principles of accuracy, completeness, balance and fairness, as set out in section 37 of the bill.
The bill empowers the proposed council to rule on complaints against media misconduct. In a case where these existing mechanisms fail to deliver justice or remedy the complaints, the state-sanctioned media council will take over. Therefore it will have jurisdiction over existing complaint mechanisms for individual journalists, media outlets, and professional media groups.
The media council will have administrative powers over the media including to order a media outlet to withdraw the professional media identification card of an erring media practitioner and/or cancel “membership” of the media organization from the media council.
Journalists or media organizations, who or which have been stripped of their “membership” under the council, will not have the liberty to address the complaints by themselves and will automatically be put under the scrutiny of the media council.
In effect, journalists and media organizations will come under the media council’s umbrella that includes it having the power to impose sanctions and regulatory powers on the practice of journalism and the operations of media outlets.
Moreover, the complaints system in the bill does not protect journalists or media organizations from criminal or civil lawsuits, as the law does not preclude the filing of cases in court.
While the bill mentions a protection measure for media practitioners in Section 55, this provision may be futile. Section 55 states that in cases where a legal order against a media practitioner conflicts with media ethics or violates the freedom of the press, the media practitioner can refuse to follow the order by submitting a letter declaring the reasons. However, the end of the section limits this option “if existing laws have been broken”. Thus, any legal case filed immediately prevents such a refusal.
Under the bill, the media council’s autonomy from the government becomes questionable and is open to interference given the process of selecting its members and its partial dependence on the state budget.
The media council will have 15 committee members, consisting of eight media practitioners; six specialists on journalism and mass communications, law, social affairs, etc.; and one from the consumer protection groups.
Members will be selected by a committee consisting of seven members from five existing professional media organizations, one from the Lawyers Council of Thailand, and one from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation.
Under the bill, the media council will receive funding from five percent of the revenues that the Thai Public Broadcasting Service organization submits to the Ministry of Finance, but not more than 50 million baht. It also requires that part of the funding come from the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, but does not specify the amount.
In the meeting to discuss the NRSA proposal, media groups acknowledged that getting public support to defend media freedom would be difficult in the current context. Unlike the past media reform that gave birth to the first and voluntary Press Council some 20 years ago, the public sentiment is not supportive of the media cause to oppose state regulation, with a widely held view that the media need to be controlled and checked for past abuses of power.
Despite the opposition of the professional media groups to the NRSA bill, it will be hard to stop its passage. They need to convince the junta and the National Legislative Assembly that there is no quick fix to media problems.
The groups acknowledged that the self-regulation model in place in Thailand for the last 16 years has failed to weed out the unscrupulous and irresponsible media.
However, they believed that efforts of the media to address their shortcomings and adhere to the ethical principles and professional standards should also be recognized. Despite their weaknesses, media groups are constantly looking for best practices that preserve media independence and deter external threats. One of the ideas discussed at the meeting is for media outlets to establish internal complaint mechanisms like an ombudsman within a media outlet.
Self-regulation systems, both within media outlets and other professional organizations, need to be further studied and developed to have more teeth to address erring colleagues. In the end, the goal is to ensure editorial independence, implement robust standards, and gain the trust and support of all stakeholders without the need for further government intervention.
The entire society needs to learn and work together to reform the media. If the people do not support the media, the state will fix the media — and the public’s right to know and freedom of expression will be undermined.