Pro-democracy activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul talks to the media after leaving the Constitutional Court where her protest activities came under legal review in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP
Pro-democracy activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul talks to the media after leaving the Constitutional Court where her protest activities came under legal review in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

In a quasi-dictator’s wet dream, the ‘democratic’ state gets to decide who can become a journalist, who not, and what journalists cannot write about – basically turning them into public relations servants.

This is a dream that the regime of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha and his men have been dreaming of – and it is getting close to reality now. The Cabinet, led by Prayut, approved a bill to licensed, control, and punish the press on Tuesday. The draft law was penned by the government’s own Department of Public Relations, headed by no less than former junta spokesman Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

Here is how you can try to pull it off without anyone ‘suspecting’ that there’s anything fishy about it.

Step One: Obfuscate, use smoke screen, and euphemism. Named the bill with benign words like “Draft Media Ethics and Professional Standards Promotion Act.”

I mean, how could anyone oppose such a nice-sounding bill, right?

No one would have suspected that there is anything sinister about it. Trust them, they have done it before. After the May 2014 coup led by Prayut, the junta came up with the term “attitude adjustment” as a euphemism for detention without charge of its opponents, real or perceived, for up to seven days at a time.

I went through that treatment twice and the first time inside a military base in Ratchaburi province. Sansern even ‘visited’ along with a crew of army-controlled TV 5 cameraman to broadcast to the world that we were not being ill treated. He even greeted me by calling me “elder brother Pravit.”

Step Two: Get willing journalists on board to undermine the already low-level of press freedom by creating a “Press Profession Council” and reward them.

This will attain just enough veneer of respectability and independence among the proposed 11-people Press Profession Council. Under the bill, five out of 11 will be representatives from various media associations. Five more chosen from the pool experts and one to break the tie if there is a deep disagreement – from a state-sponsored media fund.

The five experts should not be a problem, the heavily pro-Prayut parliament can choose regime-friendly ‘experts’ to fill the quota. As for the five from media organizations – well, there is so many fly by night media associations out there and it would take a few hundred words to type the names of all of them here.

Even the big one like the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) has far less than half of media professionals as members. Also, TJA has a checkered history including one president who resigned to join a well-paid junta-appointed ‘National Reform Council’ (sounds familiar?) after the 2014 coup led by the same Prayut, who just gave the ceremonial nod to this press control bill.

Another past president was a staunch defender of the lese majeste law when he headed TJA and still is.

It should not be too difficult to find willing takers among journalists and media associations to serve the new proposed council – especially given the ‘prestige’ and remunerations commensurate with their expedient aspirations (and lack of press freedom principles).

Step Three: Introduce media licensing system, empower the proposed council the authority to grant and revoke license for journalists and media organizations on the pretext of maintaining “people’s good morals.”

The bill stated that while the press has freedom to report news, “the exercise of freedom must not go against Thai people’s duties or people’s good morals.” Then tasked the council with the job of coming up with ethical news reporting and commentary standards. Then voila! Problems solved.

Yes, “people’s good morals” – whatever that means. Do you know what it means? The term is so vague one could probably classified anything under the rubric of “people’s good morals” and branded anything as being against “people’s good morals.”

After all, one man’s morality is another man’s oppression. This will be the key criteria in granting, not granting, or revoking press licenses in the future if Prayut got his way.

Is reporting in detail and in an empathetic manner about the monarchy-reform movement go against people’s good morals? Probably yes, if you are an ultra-royalist or working for the Public Relations Department.

The same can be said about reporting empathetically about the ‘freedom fighters’ in Patani, the Deep South, branded by the state as separatists and even by some media today as “southern goons.”

So what is left to the state of Thai press freedom after the media control and licensing bill is passed into a law? Not much really. Real journalists will become rogue journalists while media lapdogs, or public relations officers wannabes, will be licensed as bonafide journalists.

This is nothing short of a declaration of war against press freedom in Thailand and the public’s right to be informed with diverse news and views.

Who is Prayut and Sanserm, his chief PR officer from the junta years till the present, think they are trying to fool?

Everyone apparently.