The Cabinet approved the draft Act on Media Ethics and Professional Standards on 11 January, passing it on to join the queue for parliamentary debate and approval. In principle, it claims to support self-regulation by media professionals . But many still have concerns over it becoming another tool for censorship.
According to the government website recording cabinet resolutions, the draft proposed by the Department of Public Relations has 9 important points:
- The media have freedom to report news or express comments in line with media ethics, but this must not contravene the duties of the Thai people, public morals of the freedom of speech of others (Section 5).
- State-affiliated media workers can refuse any order that infringes media ethics (Section 5).
- A Media Council will be established with a mandate to promote and protect media rights and freedoms and oversee adherence to media ethics. The 11 board members will comprise 5 representatives from the media, 5 experts in mass communications and rights and 1 executive from the state’s Broadcasting and Telecommunications Research and Development Fund for the Public Interest (BTFP), (Section13).
- The Media Council will oversee the registration of professional media organisations, which will be subject to self-regulation under one set of media ethics (Section 7).
- The Council shall be granted an annual budget of not less than 25 million baht from the BTFP (Section 9)
- The Council will determine the details of media ethics in line with an acceptable international standard and will also oversee the registration of qualified professional organisations (Section 22).
- A Council office will be established in order to conduct routine tasks and facilitate the work of the Council and an Ethics Committee (Section 25),
- The Media Council will be tasked with monitoring media ethics standards including issues of news reporting for the public benefit and measures to handle unethical reporting (Section 30).
In summary, the law aims to create a state-funded Media Council that will oversee the ethical compliance of media professionals or organisations that group themselves into ‘professional organisations’ and apply for membership under the Council. The media recognized by the Council will have access to privileges that the Council may provide, such as training or national or international representation.
Although there is still no idea of what the ethical standards will be, the Council can punish violations by 1) warnings, 2) probation and 3) public reprimand.
Need for law unavoidable under the junta
At present, Thailand has no law that directly addresses the work of the media as a whole. Apart from Section 35 the 2020 Constitution which provides that the media shall enjoy the rights and freedoms ’ in presenting news or expressing opinions in accordance with professional ethics’, there are only regulations on specific prohibitions in various laws. The 1997 and 2007 constitutions had similar provisions for media freedom.
It has been agreed loosely among the media in Thailand that media regulation would be by self-regulation, meaning that the media would monitor and scrutinize unethical coverage or complaints without any intervention from the state.
Chavarong Limpattamapanee, a Senior Editor at Thairath Daily and currently President of the National Press Council of Thailand (NPCT), an organization established in 1997 to promote self-regulation and press freedom, said in a public panel on 20 January that this draft law is a necessary alternative to the military government’s attempts to control the media after the 2014 coup.
The National Council for Peace and Reconciliation (NCPO), a group of military leaders that staged a coup in 2014.
According to Chavarong, there have been several attempts to draft a law that directly addresses media operations such as the draft Protecting and Promoting Media Ethical Standards Act in 2010 after the deadly crackdown on Red Shirt protesters and previous attempts before 1997 to have a media council enshrined in the constitution. The attempts all failed, giving the media the freedom to regulate itself.
After the 2014 coup, the junta government led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha established a National Reform Council (NRC) to draft laws to reform many issues deemed important by the junta. The NRC found that self-regulation was flawed and a regulatory law was necessary on top of self-regulation.
The proposal by the NRC was to establish a media council that could intervene professional organisations’ decisions and impose financial penalties on media outlets that published unethical news. The proposal was heavily opposed by the NPCT as an infringement on self-regulation.
The National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) that replaced the NRC in 2016 added to the NRC’s proposal a provision to require media workers, under a broad definition that included even online influencers, to apply for a professional license from the state. This draft received even stronger opposition from people in the media sector and the public to the point that the NRSA had to withdraw the registration provision. However, the authorities would still be represented by an ad-hoc committee member in the first five years of the media council.
The law did not make any significant progress until the formation of the National Reform Committee on Media Communication and Information Technology, another entity responsible for the reform-related laws after the 2017 Constitution. At this stage, media representatives from the existing professional organizations were summoned by the Department of Public Relations to take part in drafting the law.
At that time the media representatives offered an alternative draft to the existing controversial version, resulting in the final version approved by the Cabinet in January 2022 which does not impose state registration and allows only social sanctions like cautions and reprimands.
Pradit Ruangdit, a former Thai Journalists Association (TJA) President and former NRC member under the media quota, said that the media formed a minority opposition within the Media Reform Committee and that they opposed radical proposals like compulsory registration and financial penalties before they decided to quit the NRC and joined the opposition movement against media registration.
Chavarong said it was better not to have this kind of law but at this time, it was either this law or state intervention.
Concern over more censorship
The Cabinet resolution caused uproar within media circles over the potential for this law to become another political tool to selectively ban some issues from being reported, such as anti-government protests and monarchy reform. However, the discussion over the need of the law and its effectiveness still far from over.
The issue that most worries media people seems to be the legal definition of media, media ethics standards, state membership on committees and an annual 25-million-baht budget.
On 17 January, Thai Media for Democracy Alliance (DemAll), a broad network of mass media and content-related workers published a statement demanding a delay to the first parliamentary reading to allow professional media associations to conduct another public hearing, citing concerns about the issues mentioned above and other technical matters like the selection committee for the Media Council.
Rittikorn Mahakhachabhorn, general manager at Voice TV, formerly a TV station that now operates online and via satellite broadcasts, said that despite improvements to the draft, the state’s intention to take control of the media is still not out of the equation because the Council is funded by the state.
He said ‘morals’ and ‘duties of Thai citizens’ are terms that allow a wide range of interpretations on which news outlets may not reach a consensus. He also raised concerns over the possibility that freelance media without a solid affiliation to any company will be included and gain access to the resources and training provided by the Council.
“Eventually, we, the media, surely stand with the people. Those who will judge what’s good or bad, what is quality or not, are the people or the audience. If you make a content that exploits others or defames others, there are already laws to handle that
Crowd control police pulling on a reporter covering a protest (Photo from iLaw)
“Finally, if any media is bad, people won’t watch it. Credibility comes from producing pieces that are useful to society. Audiences are the judge.”
From his experience, Rittikorn thinks that the law will inhibit the media more than protect it if the media ethics can be broadly interpreted in this manner, citing his workplace experience of being punished over 20 times by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission. The bans all concerned programmes that criticized the military and the Prayut-led government, citing ’inappropriate’ content.
Nattapong Malee, a citizen journalist from Ratsadon News, one among many online reporters providing close coverage of the Din Daeng protests through live broadcasts since 2021, also raised concerns about media ethics, saying that it may cause him more difficulty working in the field.
Natthapong was arrested while covering the 13 September 2021 protest.
When the curfew was being enforced, police asked the media covering the protest to produce their press cards and certificates from their workplaces and the authorities allowing them to work outside during the curfew, things that citizen journalists finds difficult to acquire. Nattapong was arrested while broadcasting the Din Daeng protests in September last year for failing to provide these documents.
Even when the curfew was withdrawn, the police asked the media to produce their press cards to enter areas they had secured despite it being an open public space.
Nattapong said that if the law is passed, the authorities may come up with more reasons to ban citizen journalists who may not be able to register with the Council because they have no media documentation.
“Listen to the voice of reporters from every outlet to hear how they see it. And I want [the law] to be really related to the interests of the media because the duty of the media is to report news, be a check on suspicious activities and the transparency of those who use taxpayers’ money,” said Nattapong.
Somkid Puttasri, Editor-in-Chief of The 101.World, an online media company renowned for its quality content from an academic and journalistic point of view, shares Rittikorn’s view of the broad interpretation of media ethics. Although it features in media regulations in many countries, in the Thai context, where interpretations usually benefit the authorities, limits to press freedom must be written as clearly as possible.
Beside the issue of ethics, Somkid is also concerned about the definition of ‘media’ in Section 3 as those who deliver news to the people for public benefit on any kind of platform EXCEPT those who exercise their freedom of expression without seeking profit.
He believes that by defining the media as for-profit is an ambiguous benchmark as online influencers who sometimes act as content creators and deliver news are now gaining income from their own channels. For example, will a Youtuber with 1 million followers be counted as media? If yes, the scope of ethics and the jurisdiction of the Council would be problematic.
On protection for the media in line with media ethics, Somkid does not think highly of its efficiency due to the fact that even existing laws that safeguard media freedom and freedom of expression still do not work well.
Time for the media to take regulation seriously
The 101 Editor-in-Chief said mistrust in Thailand plays a part in the caution of the media and the public over a law submitted by a state body. But the fact that self-regulation has been inefficient and selective means that there is room for improvement. The draft is relatively OK in its content, so the question is how the regulation process can improve the media industry, stay independent from state influence despite being funded by it, and lastly, be accountable to its audiences.
“I think of the media as a profession in the sense that what we do affects the public quite a lot and has externality. If the media works well, society will gain a lot of benefit. But if the media has no minimum standards, society will not only gain no benefit, but will in fact lose. For example, during the Covid pandemic, I believe that quite a lot of people died from receiving incorrect news, and getting the wrong treatment. I think the media can truly help people’s lives, and can also truly kill people. So personally, I still think that media should be regulated with minimum standards so that the work of the media has a positive impact on society.
“People in media circles have problems with self-regulation. People in media circles not only mistrust each other, but also don’t believe that we should regulate each other. We should raise standards, on both sides. But the state side doesn’t need that many arguments, but our side may have too few.”
Somkid went on to say that there are generally three types of media regulation, self-regulation, co-regulation between the state and media, and full state control. In the Thai context, co-regulation may be interesting where a system is established to facilitate the Media Council in conducting self-regulation effectively in order not to have state measures come into play. This kind of co-regulation also exists in Australia and England.
On this draft law and co-regulation, he still has questions as there are no concrete details of a regulatory system that can guarantee the Council’s independence, regulatory efficiency, and lastly, true representation of the media for the public benefit.
Mongkol Bangprapa, President of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), one of the professional media associations, said the current self-regulation only applies to members of the National Press Council and professional associations, which means an outlet can easily avoid scrutiny by not joining or resigning their membership. As a result, there is a huge hole in media self-regulation where this law offers a solution.
The police tried to seize a mobile phone from a civilian reporter from the Kathoei Mae Luk On Facebook page. (Photo from iLaw)
If the new law is to be passed, the Media Council version of ethics will serve as a common standard for the media. Other professional organisations registered under the Council can either adhere to that or have their own code of ethics with a higher standard. Unregistered media organisations will be subject to the Council’s version of ethics.
The TJA president said it is not surprising that the media and the public would oppose this kind of law coming from a government that has a history of censorship, but the law will result in more effective self-regulation and the public should be vigilant of any negative changes to its content in the parliamentary readings.
“The legal path is now only halfway, but I am trying to tell everyone not to be confident because when it gets to parliament, the majority side still belongs to the government and can change it at the committee stage in a way that is not in line with the principles. This is something we have to be wary of,” said Mongkol.
“We understand that the laws passed by every government, especially governments that we perceive as originating from a coup, will try to interfere with the media. Being cautious like this is a good thing. Making society and all the media help each other to be vigilant that the legislative process does not get hijacked is a good thing. But suspicion alone and rejection based on suspicion may sometimes stop something that is making progress.
“When the fundamental principle is not distorted, let’s first open this door, then it’s up to everyone to help.”