Regime puts journalists in the crosshairs

What does the media rights protection bill hold in store for Thai journalism?

Freedom of expression is under threat in the post-coup era, and now Thai journalists are in the firing line. Since last month, the nation's media circle has been shaken by the "bill on rights protection, ethical promotion and standards of media professionals" -- the media rights protection bill -- proposed by the media reform steering panel of the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA).

The name of the bill sounds optimistic. It purports to improve the media industry. But on closer inspection, the bill could strew obstacles on the road towards democracy.

Initially, the bill proposed a 13-member "national media profession council" which would consist of media representatives, academics and four government representatives -- the permanent secretaries of the finance, digital economy and society, and culture ministries and the Office of the Prime Minister -- and would be empowered to penalise media outlets which violate the code of conduct. The council has the power to issue licences to journalists as well as confiscate them. If the bill becomes law, this will be the first time individual journalists in Thailand will be licensed.

A QUESTION OF PRINCIPLES: From left, Amornrat Mahitthirook, Suwanna Sombatraksasuk, Pradit Ruengdit and Jakkrit Permpoon hand in their esignations from the committee.

Questions are circulated among Thai journalists: if they criticise the government, will they be silenced by having their licence revoked by a council that has government members?

The bill is seen as a major threat to press freedom, provoking fierce opposition from Thai journalists. The NRSA, however, insists that the measure is not designed to constrain press freedom.

In a move to placate journalists, the NRSA recently announced dropping two government representatives from the council and replacing them with representatives from the Consumer Protection Board and the National Human Rights Commission. But this may not be enough to allay concerns that the council will still have power over the media.

Since the coup, freedom of expression has been threatened by controversial legislation such as the amendment to the 2007 Computer Crime Act that will set up a panel to screen data and recommend authorities seek a court order to remove or block content.

The Public Gathering Act, which came into effect under the administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, prohibits gatherings without state permission.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has seized television's prime hour, 6pm after the national anthem, to broadcast Thailand Move Forward which focuses on the government's work and successes.

It often invites government representatives to discuss controversial issues. When a group protesting against the Krabi power plant gathered in front of Government House on Feb 18, the programme broadcast an interview with government representatives who spoke about the benefits of the coal plant.

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders ranked Thailand 136 out of 180 countries, noting that the NCPO "exercises permanent control over journalists and citizen-journalists" while the PM is given to frequent verbal attacks against journalists.

With the call for press freedom, however, Thai journalists must also clean up their act.

Local media has faced criticism for violating the code of conduct. For instance, there was much anger at a media outlet which broadcast a man hanging himself on Facebook Live last month. Mass-circulation dailies have been slammed for publishing photographs of child victims. On top of that, some media outlets are known for their political bias. This has raised doubts about media self-regulation.

In the nation's transition to democracy, with a general election slated for mid-2018, the media will have to prove that it can regulate itself or else fall under state control.

MEDIA CONTROL AN OLD STORY

MEDIA REGULATION: Academic Mana Treelayapewat says the lack of reliability is a bigger problem than the bill. Photo: SEKSAN ROJJANAMETAKUN

Attempts to control the media is not new to Thailand. According to Pirongrong Ramasoota, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of communication arts, media censorship first appeared in the 1930s following the Siamese Revolution.

There was a spate of laws forcing the media to spread nationalism under the military government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and a crackdown on journalists under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.

Business influence on the media emerged after the 1970s and intensified in the following decades, especially during the administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

One notorious case involved the Shinawatra family's Shin Corporation buying shares in independent television station iTV, amid allegations that journalists were pressured to depict the Thai Rak Thai party in a favourable light during the 2001 general election.

Press freedom has been enshrined in the 1997 and 2007 versions of the constitution which guarantee journalists' freedom to report responsibly.

With the advent of digital technology, many media platforms have emerged including cable TV channels, websites and social media pages which are overt about their political affiliations, such as Blue Sky which supports the People's Democratic Reform Committee and Asia Update which backs the red shirts.

Meanwhile, individual outlets on Facebook such as "Drama-Addict" and "E Jeab Leab Duan" have millions of followers and exert a powerful influence on their audiences.

In addition, there are many pages which run campaigns against the government on various issues such as state development projects and corruption.

The new landscape of the Thai media seems beyond government control, very open but also generating misinformation.

The media rights protection bill is likely to cover all kinds of media including individual outlets as its definition of the media is very broad -- channels that are used to communicate with pictures, sounds and text in the form of newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, online media or any other form that can communicate with people.

If the bill becomes law, it raises the question of how online media will be controlled. Since the bill's definition of media is very wide, individuals such as owners of Facebook pages will also need to be licensed.

MAKING A STAND: Staff of iTV speak during a press conference in 2001. Some 23 employees were laid off and seven were sacked for accusing the management of interference in editorial matters. Photo: Jetj aras na Ranong

"Those who drafted the bill don't understand the diversity and complexity of the media. They don't distinguish professional media from other kinds," says Ms Pirongrong.

"The bill generalises all media and tries to control all of them. It will create a new order."

In principle, she says, media regulation can be >> >> implemented via a self-regulatory organisation with a code of ethics -- such as the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the Online News Providers Association that cover print and online journalism, respectively.

Complaints can be lodged with the organisation, which will conduct investigations and implement measures such as sanctions and compensation without needing state intervention.

Regulation is enforced by state law such as the establishment of the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to regulate radio and television channels. It can revoke media licences permanently as a penalty for violation of the code of ethics, said Ms Pirongrong.

In 2015, the NBTC contacted Thai PBS executives to investigate news broadcasts of Dao Din, a student activist group campaigning for human rights.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: Pirongrong Ramasoota of Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of communication arts says the bill will create a new order. Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

The investigation was prompted by complaints from the military government which claimed that the news provoked conflict against the NCPO's orders. The case is ended with a warning to Thai PBS.

"The new bill is a hybrid model -- it allows self-regulation but uses state members to control the council licensing journalists. There is no parallel in the world," says Ms Pirongrong.

"It's a matter of information. If the media is under state control, people will have difficulty accessing information."

She believes the professional media can be self-regulated, but this needs serious effort from the media itself.

SELF-REGULATION PROBLEM

Around 6pm on Feb 25, the image of a man on a radio tower behind Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani was widely disseminated in media outlets.

Th man had climbed the tower to protest the government's implementation of Section 44 which allowed officers to search the temple to arrest Phra Dhammajayo, head of the Dhammakaya sect.

PROTECTING THE FOURTH ESTATE: Thepchai Yong, centre, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, has called for a review of the media rights protection bill. Photo: Apichart Jinakul

At 9pm, he decided to hang himself on the tower in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers.

While some journalists ended their Facebook Live feeds, others continued live broadcasts of the suicide -- a clear violation of media ethics to many people.

This is not the first time the local media has faced criticism for their failure to follow the code of conduct and inability to self-regulate journalists and media organisations.

In May last year, several media broadcast live coverage of the five-hour negotiation at a hotel in Saphan Kwai between police officers and Dr Wanchai Danaitamonut, a lecturer at Phranakhon Rajabhat University, who was accused of murdering two colleagues. During the standoff, Dr Wanchai threatened to shoot himself.

As tensions mounted, Dr Wanchai killed himself. The scene was broadcast live and photographs of the negotiation scene and his dead body were widespread on news outlets. No media outlets received a warning for such actions.

"Not only does the [media rights protection] bill reflect the state's desire to control the media, it also indicates that the media have problem with self-regulation. The government claims this is a problem, and we can't deny that the problem exists," says Mana Treelayapewat, dean of the faculty of communication arts at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

UNEASY RELATIONSHIP: Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha fields questions from journalists at Government House. The prime minister often slams the media for casting the government in a bad light. photo: Chanat Katanyu

"It's a major task for the media to prove that it can make self-regulation work. The media can survive by building reliability. Lack of reliability is a bigger problem than the bill."

With the line between professional and amateur media becoming blurred, the professional media has to work harder to prove itself as well as involve other sectors such as consumers and academics, he adds.

Consumer can also help to regulate the media. Individuals have more channels to criticise and complain about the media which will, in turn, alert the media to follow ethical guidelines.

"The government should support media self-regulation rather than enforcing state control," Mr Mana says.

The bill also shines light on divisions within the media, riven by conflicting political biases.

Even though the bill is largely opposed by the media, some reserve their criticism for professional media representatives taking part in state bodies set up after the coup.

Participation in such bodies is like the media rubber stamping the coup, say critics, and also lead to the media rights protection bill. Some journalists insist that journalism by its very nature must oppose dictatorship.

NOT IN A DEMOCRACY

Immediately after the 2014 coup, the junta set up the National Reform Council (NRC) consisting of representatives from many sectors with a mission to reform aspects of Thailand.

During the process of member selection, the TJA nominated two journalists, including former TJA president Pradit Ruengdit who was eventually selected.

The TJA claimed it must send media representatives to join the NRC to protect the rights of people and the press amid charges that the move was inappropriate.

When the first draft of the post-coup constitution under the lead of legal expert Borwornsak Uwanno was rejected by the NRC, the government started procedures to for the second draft and asked Pattara Kampitak, former president of the National Press Council of Thailand, to join the constitution drafting committee.

The Borwonsak draft constitution had a section on press freedom, proposing a subordinate law to guarantee that no one should interfere in the media's work.

Mr Pradit says he took part in proposing strategies to protect press freedom which promoted media self-regulation at three levels: at the media organisation level which should set up units to regulate their own journalists and open channels for complaints relating to violation of the rights of others; at the self-regulatory organisation level which should assure the availability of a complaints channel; and at the media professional council level which should use soft power to encourage collaboration within media circles.

"My point of view is no different from other members of the media. I side with press freedom," says Mr Pradit.

After the NRC was abolished as a result of the rejection of the Borwonsak draft constitution, the NRSA was formed to continue the reform mission.

Mr Pradit and three other journalists were invited to join a subcommittee working on press freedom under the NRSA's media reform steering panel.

They found out at the end of last year that the NRSA intended to add the idea of licensing journalists to the bill and put government representatives in the national media profession council.

They announced their resignations in protest on Feb 2 -- the same day some journalists first realised they had many representatives in the subcommittee.

"I'm the one who brought the details of the bill to the media's attention," he says.

"The bill was distorted from its original intention. We don't oppose any law that will regulate media ethics. But drawing up such legislation must involve the media."

There's another controversial issue: the council will be fully funded by the government, so how can the council avoid state interference even if there are no government representatives on the body?

Meanwhile, the draft bill at this point paints a dim future for the media. Gen Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan often slam the media for casting the government in a bad light.

Speaking at a seminar at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on Feb 22, Thepchai Yong, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, said even though all council members were journalists, it's still unacceptable to give them the power to control the entire media.

With state money and wide-ranging power, he was curious what the council will do to the local media.

The bill should be developed when democracy returns, then there can be real public participation. n

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