BANGKOK — A government bid to regulate the media by requiring every journalist nationwide to be licensed is closer to becoming reality as press associations sound the alarm it is a vehicle for censorship.
At least 20 media associations will gather Sunday to protest a law billed as meant to protect press freedoms and promote ethical standards but open the door for government intervention and rolling back decades hard-won press freedoms.
Despite strong objections from journalists and their associations, a new draft of the bill will be brought up Monday by the National Reform Steering Assembly, a junta-appointed body that devises legislation to forward to the junta’s interim legislature for consideration.
The law would require all media in the country to register and submit to a national media council. No matter their platform – television, periodical or digital – all outlets would be overseen by the same council, which according to those who’ve seen the latest draft, would be comprised of industry representatives, citizens, unspecified experts from various fields and the permanent secretaries of four government ministries.
“No democratic countries license journalists,” Wanchai Wongmeechai, president of the Thai Journalists Association, said Thursday.
Among the council’s powers would be drafting a course all reporters and media professionals would have to attend in order to earn a license. The council would have the power to fine journalists 30,000 baht and blacklist them from working by revoking their licenses.
Born of the junta’s long-held desire to “reform the press,” it’s been a slow burn for the idea first raised in mid-2015 to reach fruition. It was drafted by the reform steering assembly’s media reform committee, which is headed by a retired Air Force general.
Retired Air Chief Marshal Kanit Suwannet said the council is needed because self-regulation has been ineffective.
“Their self-regulation was not based on a law. So it lacked binding force,” he said Thursday. “Someone did something wrong, and they just resigned from the association and returned to the industry.”
The latest draft to be taken up Monday has yet been revealed to the public. If the legislative process goes as planned, the draft will be submitted to the junta’s interim cabinet early next month. After it is approved, it will be passed to the junta-appointed legislature for final approval.
After many fruitless petitions against the bill, the Thai Journalist Association has invited the media and public to show their opposition to the law’s threat to their rights and freedoms at 11am on Sunday at its office on Samsen Road.
Though the draft can still be amended along the way to becoming law, its central ambition of forming a regulatory body to govern all media in the nation is unlikely to change.
Wanchai of the journalist association said there are already many laws that can enforce press ethics such as defamation, child protections and national security bills.
“These days we already have many junta orders about the media,” he said. “Some of the press today censor themselves and refrain from criticism.”
ACM Kanit said the media needs to be taught a lesson.
“So they learn about the limits to exercising rights and freedom and can be mindful of infringing on others’ rights,” he said. “They should write the way a person who loves the nation would.”
Work by unlicensed reporters would be illegal. Kanit said they will have to discuss further whether foreign journalists would be held to the same regulations.
Kanit disputed the licensing system has anything to do with limiting media rights and freedoms.
“It is the same as your driving license …you need to know the rules and not be mentally ill in order to drive,” he said, citing other professions for which licenses are required, such as physicians, pilots, lawyers or engineers.
But Wanchai said that comparison was not logical.
“Those professions involve [the safety of] people’s lives,” he said. “But you don’t need to graduate from mass communication to do a reporting job. It is about finding the truth, which uses many skills in combination.”
Attempts to regulate media have been rejected in other nations as incompatible with democratic institutions.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance has been working with the Thai Journalist Association to campaign against the bill, which they argue will hand control of the media to the government and make journalists legally vulnerable.
Alliance Executive Director Edgardo Legaspi said the law will push Thailand back to the 1970s, when a coup leader granted himself the power to shut down newspapers.
The most significant concern for Wanchai is the four of 13 members of the media council would be permanent secretaries from various government ministries.
“They have the power to revoke these licenses,” Wanchai said. “What if a permanent secretary was investigated by the media and then turned to abuse their power?”