Media bill: a paradox between journalist ethics and junta’s regulations

Two weeks ago, the whip committee of the junta’s National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) temporarily rejected the Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards Bill, following strong opposition from the 30 media organisations. The NRSA promised that its media reform panel will review the bill. 
 
The NRSA’s media reform panel wants to establish a “National Professional Media Council” (NPMC) consisting of 13 members that will have the authority to impose fines on offenders or even revoke their licenses. However, since that council will include two members from the government, it raises the question of what exactly is implied by “journalist ethics”. 

Including ethics in the bill

 

The media reform panel has included ethics in the bill. According to Article 58, the publication of news and content must follow journalistic ethics and social morality, avoid content that creates a negative impact and puts public interest as its first priority. However, the bill remains unclear about what “journalistic ethics” and “social morality” mean. 
 
“They do not define what are the guidelines”, said Achara Ashayagachat, a journalist from Bangkok Post.  
 
In addition, the bill provides that publication of news and content must be independent and free from influence of any individual, state agency, private organization or other form of organization. 
 
The NPMC will consist of 13 members including two senior government officials. 
 
The council will be in charge of determining whether news content is in line with “journalistic ethics”, which will necessarily rely on members’ values and judgement. Thus, the council’s judgement cannot be free from influence and itself respect “journalistic ethics”, given the fact that mainstream media has long had close connection with the military and big corporations. 
 
Chulalongkorn University journalism lecturer, Pichitra Tsukamoto said that ethics is already a standard which every media should have and that there should be mechanisms to enforce it, but ethics should not become laws. She added that the state should know the limit of its role because when it jumps into determining morality or what is good or bad, the state is doing things which it is not supposed to do. 
 
Even media workers collaborating with the junta have protested this bill. According to The Nation, former chair of the National Press Council of Thailand Chakkrit Permpool, a member of an NRSA subcommittee, said he and three other fellow members of the media would resign from the subcommittee because the proposed media reform bill was aimed at restricting press freedom.

Junta’s will to regulate all media

 
Opposition rose up after the NRSA released its media bill putting the NPMC in charge of regulating the media. The Council shall have the authority to approve or revoke licenses of media workers according to its regulations. 
 
The NPCM originally was to consist of five representatives from the media, four from the state and six from others sectors. 
 
However, after strong protests from media organisations, the NRSA media reform panel agreed to review the bill by decreasing the number of government officials from four to two. 
 
Media experts believe this is still not sufficient to guarantee transparency since the NRSA insists on maintaining the council’s power to revoke licences and impose the so-called media ethical standards.  
 
“We agree in principle the voluntary self-regulation of media organisations should be upgraded and become the responsibility of a legal professional council. But the composition and authority of its members should be reviewed,” said NRSA whip Khamnoon Sitthisamarn as quoted by Bangkok Post
 
The NPCM will be responsible for reviewing and investigating complaints from people who feel that their rights are violated by media. The council will decide whether it will impose a fine on the offender or revoke her/his license.
 
All complaints about the media, either social or professional, licenced or unlicenced, will be directly filed with the NPCM. 
 
Various journalists point out that this council will improve nothing but the junta’s censorship powers. 
 
“We’re not against ethical regulations but they should be self-regulation. The bill will make way for political intervention because the permanent secretaries are appointed by politicians,” Confederation of Thai Journalists President Thepchai Yong told the Bangkok Post.
 
“Thailand could violate the ICCPR with this media bill because the covenant provides guidelines for freedom of expression and a channel for public opinion. But our concern is even more related to the Cyber-Crime Law that the government enacted last december”, said Achara. 
 
The  controversial Computer Crimes Act allows the junta to monitor the web in order to prosecute any threats to national security. The law also mandates excessive punishment for those who post illegal content online.

Not the first attempt to interfere in media affairs

 
In 2014, journalists from the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) TV channel and other mainstream media kicked off a campaign for media freedom after the junta’s interference in the channel, resulting in the removal of a programme host. However, their campaign for media freedom was harshly criticized as hypocritical as the programme host had a record of supporting censorship. 
 
The campaign came after Thai PBS executives removed Nattaya Wawweerakhup, host of “Voices of the People that must be heard before the Reform” as a result of junta pressure to stop broadcasting the programme because the host asked questions which led people to make negative remarks about the coup.
 
Moreover, last year, Thai PBS chose a high-ranking military officer as a new director. Lt Col Narawit Paoin formerly served as Deputy Director of Administration of the Market Organization under the Ministry of Interior, Director of the Office of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) and officer in the Department of Special Investigation (DSI).
 
The junta also used Announcement 97/2014 to shut down Peace TV, a station run by red-shirt leaders, for a month during the constitutional referendum campaign in August last year. 
 
More recently, a programme of Voice TV - a channel owned by the Shinawatra family - faced a seven day suspension for violating the 2014 NCPO Announcement No.97/2557 which itself is widely seen as limiting media freedom. The decision was made after the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission decided that the content of The Daily Dose programme “created division in society and presented partial facts". 
 
However, Announcement 97/2057 will have no legal power as soon as the junta steps down from power. But the media bill will. 
 
 
Journalists interview the junta head at the Government House (Photo from Thairath)