After nearly three years of serving as unpaid junta apologists, many Thai media outlets this week had a very rude awakening. The junta’s appointed National Reform Steering Assembly wants every media professional – journalist, TV host, radio voice – to have to earn a license. They also want top bureaucrats to sit on a national media council for further regulations, or restrictions, depending on one’s point of view.
Frantic meetings among six major media associations, including the Thai Journalists Association, or TJA, took place this week and gave a thumbs-down to the proposed bill that would probably hand a death blow to any remaining critical coverage of the military junta.
Licensing journalists means many hard-headed reporters and editors may find themselves without a license, illegal and unfit for the job. What Thailand would be left with, in this dystopian dream of junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, would be lame journalists willing to not just toe the state’s line but actively promote their autocratic culture.
TJA is partly responsible for this mess. Its sitting president during the 2014 coup, a political reporter by the name of Pradit Ruangdit from the Bangkok Post, had no qualms accepting the junta leader’s appointment as a member of the junta’s first reform council two years ago.
Another former TJA President still sits on the current junta’s appointed Constitution Drafting Committee, and the hospitality shown by many Government House beat reporters to the dictator-cum-premier puts concierges of some top hotels to shame. They literally sing along with Prayuth and once even dressed as school children to delight him on a special occasion.
There is no time for schadenfreude, however, as the potential repercussions of such a bill would be disastrous to the already restricted free press already burdened by the amended Computer Crime Act and the good old lese majeste laws. All these media associations, TJA included, need all the support from the public in order to thwart this latest assault to press freedom.
Licensed “professional” journalists are the stuff of dictatorships and have no place in a free land.
In Thailand, such state-approved reporters would hardly pose hard-hitting questions to Prayuth and his successors. There will probably be zero doubt cast on the illegitimacy of the military dictatorship by such licensed professional journalists. Anyone with improper – read critical – attitudes toward nation, religion and monarchy would most likely fail to obtain such a license. Yes. That includes me.
Thailand will instead be left with lame “professional journalists” who will toe the line dictated by the state. Think Pravda of the old Soviet Union or the New Light of Myanmar before The Lady came to power.
Currently, even without this bill, Thai media, this writer included, are already exercising a disappointingly alarming level of self-censorship on anything mildly critical of the monarchy. Such levels of self-censorship are reminiscent of totalitarian states like North Korea. A citizens like Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa has been behind bars for a month just for sharing a biography of the new king produced by BBC Thai on Facebook.
The Nation newspaper on Wednesday published a letter to the editor under the name Kip Keino decrying the erosion of free speech in the two English print newspapers.
“Both English-language daily newspapers in Thailand have restricted their forums, which used to allow readers’ comments. In contrast I see that a daily newspaper in Namibia devotes two full pages each day to comments from readers..,” wrote Keino, adding that while both papers still have letters to the editor spaces, they “have stopped allowing online responses and other such commentaries.”
Is this the inevitable fate of Thailand – to have ersatz press freedom and equally ersatz professional licensed journalists? I have no crystal ball, but those who are concerned about Thailand’s free press, the dwindling right to debate and articulate freely should take notice. The junta is increasingly behaving like a giant python slowly but gradually stifling its prey by wrapping and squeezing freedoms, expression and now the free press to death.
The showdown is coming. The stakes are high. It’s not just the future of a free press but citizens’ rights to access critical news about the powers that be that is at stake.