Media bodies in Thailand are wary of the new bill which includes a ฿25 million media fund and the control it may give to officials over content and coverage. The bill is being pushed by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a leading member of the junta from 2014 to 2019 who is particularly responsible for state security and has long championed efforts to regulate the newly emerging media order.
A joint sitting of Thailand’s parliament on Tuesday failed to advance the passage of a bill promoting regulation of the media put forward by the government last year and which appears to be a key priority for it to pass. In September 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is particularly responsible for internal security, urged the Speaker of the House of Representatives to expedite the passage of the bill.
Government legislation aimed at introducing a regulatory body for the media, the promotion of ethics and professional standards initially stalled in the House of Representatives on Tuesday due to a lack of a quorum.
Before this, the combined House and Senate assembly heard vociferous opposition from a Bangkok based Pheu Thai Party MP and the independent-minded Bhumjaithai Party MP for Sisaket, Mr Siripong Angkhasakulkiat.
Media professionals are increasingly anxious about the new bill being fast-tracked through parliament
The proposed law is officially titled the Bill on the Protection and Promotion of Media Rights, Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards.
Media professionals in the kingdom are becoming increasingly anxious about the proposed law which appears to be on a fast track through parliament including Tuesday’s joint sitting to review it.
They fear that ‘ethics’ and a lack of ‘professionalism’ could become grounds used by the country’s official establishment to mute or tone down more biting media coverage of current affairs after several years of improvement for press freedom in the kingdom
Last Friday, Mr Supan Rakchuea of the News Broadcast Council, told Thai PBS, a state-owned news outlet, that the enthusiasm shown by the government for the law made him anxious as to its motives.
Deputy PM Prawit, last September, requested that the House Speaker Chuan Leekpai give it priority, fears it could be used to undermine press freedom
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and leader of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party is understood to have written to parliamentary speaker Chuan Leekpai on September 6th last advocating speedier measures to have it approved.
General Prawit was also very involved with the Digital Economy and Society Ministry in the establishment of Thailand’s official Fake News Center launched by the Digital Economy and Society Ministry in November 2019.
In response to the legislation, the News Broadcast Council of Thailand says it opposes the measure saying it represents duplication and possible interference with Section 35 of the 2017 Constitution which has already been tested by the courts and upholds the rights of freedom of expression exercised by media professionals.
On October 22nd 2020, the Criminal Court reversed course on an original order shutting down Voice TV and other online broadcasters at the request of the Digital Economy and Society Ministry based on national security grounds and under the then state of emergency.
The court, two days later, however, reversed course despite last-minute representations from the Prime Minister’s Office based on Section 35 of the 2017 Constitution.
Opposition on the floor from 2 MPs, one Bangkok-based Pheu Thai representative and the other an independent-minded Bhumjaithai Party MP
One of the main opposition speakers against the proposed new law, on Tuesday, was Bangkok Pheu Thai MP Mr Jirayu Huangsap who addressed the joint meeting describing the proposed bill as a product of the junta era and in particular the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), the rubber stamp legislative assembly of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) or the junta which ruled Thailand from 2014 until 2019 under the current prime minister, General Prayut Chan ocha.
The junta government and successive ministers in the coalition have long sought to create more oversight of media operations in Thailand spanning a range of proposals including a single internet gateway such as has been introduced in Cambodia which technically facilitates state censorship or a proposed national news pool, a centralised state news agency to control significant national news stories in particular coverage of emergencies or sensitive situations.
Digital Economy ministry has, for a long time now, proposed measures to rein in the growing, vibrant and more complex media environment in Thailand
The last two Digital Economy and Society ministers including Mr Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn have pushed such proposals which have been rebuffed and in general, are not supported by the media while the courts have upheld a more robust view of press freedom under the 2017 Constitution than had previously been expected.
Thailand, despite ongoing controversy over the Section 112 lèse-majesté provision and the use by government security agencies of Pegasus spy software, has managed to see a reasonable improvement in recent years in press freedom making it an outlier in Southeast Asia.
This is also coming in the face of efforts by more conservative elements in the government to exercise more control over the media.
The demand to do this has grown due to significant changes to the media landscape in Thailand where traditional media is being challenged by what Thai officials term ‘OTT platforms’ which operate outside current controls for instance those imposed on Thai television stations which have begun to lose ground to disparate competitors who are unlicensed and not answerable to Thai regulatory agencies.
Law a throwback to junta-era ambitions to control the information flow and media landscape as a matter of state security. MP talked of a ‘hidden agenda’
In parliament on Tuesday, Mr Jirayu described the proposed legislation as a retrograde step that harkened back to ambitions held by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to exercise control over Thailand’s media landscape.
He described the bill which speaks to self-regulation, oversight and ethics as having a hidden agenda. He said, at this time, such a law was highly inappropriate.
He called for any such provision to be aired and put to a public vote in a national referendum.
‘It must be removed from the House of Commons, and the people should have a referendum,’ he declared.
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The bill was also fiercely opposed by Bhumjaithai Party MP Siripong Angkhasakulkiat who in June 2019 abstained in the vote to elect General Prayut Chan ocha as prime minister despite the party whip.
Law is already out of date said the Bhumjaithai Party Sisaket MP due to massive changes in social media including the rise of the Chinese giant Tik Tok
He said the legislation was already well out of date having been drafted in the junta era when social media sites such as the giant Chinese Tik Tok site did not even exist.
‘The bill is out-of-date, and the government should rescind it,’ he told the joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Eventually, a lack of quorum prevented a vote from being taken on the bill’s passage to the next stage and the meeting was cancelled after three hours of debate.
This was the first reading of the bill submitted earlier last year by the cabinet. The law sets out to regulate media standards and ethics in line with international principles.
It would impose new demands on media operators.
Opponents of the bill fear such a requirement could eventually be used to censor or control Thailand’s vibrant fourth estate which has survived and maintained a relatively high standard of reporting and freedom despite the country’s long history of political instability and military coups.
One aspect highlighted was the proposed new law would allow reporters and editors of state-sponsored media to refuse to follow instructions from their employers or publishers where such actions were thought by them unethical or unprofessional according to standards to be laid down by a regulatory body.
Senator defended the new law saying it had been vetted by key players in the media industry and the Council of State, media body wants it withdrawn
The meeting heard from Senator Kamnoon Sidhisamarn who has often been critical of the government and Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha particularly concerning police reform, in support of the legislation.
He told the meeting that the bill had received the imprimatur of the Council of State and key media figures who have reviewed it.
However, the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA), on Monday, came out in opposition to the new law.
In its statement, it said that the cabinet had prematurely tabled the bill to parliament without adequate consultation with the media industry.
It said that the creation of a Thai media council would probably be a step towards controlling and influencing media coverage in Thailand thereby constraining press freedom.
It called for the bill to be withdrawn by the government.
About the Author
Joseph Anthony is an expat from Ireland who has lived in Thailand for the last decade. He has worked extensively in the media including editorial positions in Ireland and Thailand. He is focused on economic and business stories in Thailand as well as the expat lifestyle.