Media bill supports junta ambitions to stay in power: senior journalists

Senior journalists have denounced the junta’s controversial Media Bill, arguing the junta wishes to entrench itself in power rather than promote truth and responsible media.
 
On 22 February 2017, a panel of senior journalists and media officials at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand warned that severe new media regulations proposed by the junta represent the military’s ambitions to maintain an influence in Thai politics even after the country transitions to a democratic system.
 
Thepchai Yong, the President of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, began by pointing out that the junta already has the legal and repressive mechanisms to exert significant control over Thailand’s media, such as through Article 44 of the interim constitution — which grants the junta absolute power.
 
The promulgation of superfluous media regulations, for Thepchai, represents ongoing efforts by the junta to create institutions that it, or its political and business allies, can influence even if the junta is replaced by a democratically elected government.
 
“We believe that the junta, or some figures in the junta, are trying to be in power for the long haul, in one form or another, after the next election. That’s why they think they need some legal institutions to use to silence criticisms and control things, because they know many of the legal mechanisms they have now will not be legal after the country becomes a democracy. I think this is something designed for the long term,” mused Thepchai.
 
If passed, the ‘Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards Bill’ will require all media outlets to receive a license from a National Council of Media Professions (NCMP), a body tasked with ensuring the industry acts in accordance with the regulations set out under the bill. Without a media license from the NCMP, organisations will not be able to operate.
 
While the NCMP will include members from both government and industry, civil society has pointed out that some segments of the mainstream media have exhibited questionable connections to the military.
 
The bill will also establish a committee to ensure media outlets adhere to vaguely defined ‘media ethics’ and do not present news content that violates ‘public morals’. Under the proposed bill, the NCMP will be allotted a budget of at least 100 million baht a year.
 
“That’s a huge sum of money,” Thepchai warned, “Just imagine a media panel with such legal power and such an amount of money in their hands. Just imagine what kind of power that can wield over media.”
 
 
Representatives of 30 media organisations denounce the junta’s media bill (Photo from Matichon Online)
 
The panel agreed that the junta was motivated to tighten media freedom in the aftermath of the country’s ‘red and yellow shirt’ conflict, during which rival political movements used platforms such as radio and TV to mobilise supporters and organise political rallies.  
 
Pirongrong Ramasoota, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Communication Arts, explained that prior to 1997, radio airwaves had always been state property. But Section 40 of the 1997 ‘People’s Constitution’ liberalised airwaves, paving the way for self-regulation and community media.
 
“With this so called ‘frequency anarchy’ during the period of the yellow shirt movement and the red shirt movement, media was exploited for political purposes without any regulation whatsoever. That has been used as an excuse by political appointees of the junta,” summarised Pirongrong.
 
Yet media-driven political chaos is not merely a fear of the junta, but is also shared by segments of the public such as the middle class, observes Supinya Klangnarong, a Commissioner at the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).
 
“Ever since [the military coup] there have been so many uprisings and demonstrations and so many people participating in politics … some people think that we should take a step back,” echoed Supinya.
 
“Fighting the government is tough already but fighting public sentiment, especially when it comes from the middle class — who is very powerful — is even tougher.”
 
But Thepchai believes also that the junta has long held ambitions to curb media freedom, drawing parallels between the current bill and media regulations issued to news outlets in the aftermath of the 2014 coup.
 
“Shortly after the coup a few years ago, we were presented with what we were told was a blueprint for media reform prepared by the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Defence Ministry … I believe that was the basis for the bill that we are talking about today. The contents of that paper and the contents of the bill we are talking about are not much different. Both present mechanisms for control over the media.”
 
Supinya pointed out that the NBTC, as the nation’s current independent media regulator, is already perceived by many as too conservative and is already subject to considerable pressure from the junta. The bill that established the NBTC is also presently being reviewed in the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly.  
 
“[You may] observe that the NBTC right now is not such a progressive media regulator already — many times we bow down to the military government to sanction the media. Still, they want to revise it to make it less progressive. Now we already have five or six former [members of the] military in our Commission.”
 
Thepchai acknowledged that two days earlier, the media bill’s drafting committee had agreed to reduce the number of government representatives sitting on the licensing committee from four to two. But he views this concession as a mere technicality, since a monopoly of control over the media by any one body remains dangerous.
 
“[Media licensing] is something that goes against the principle of media freedom. Whoever sits on the panel is not important because the fact that this panel will have such power is frightening. Even if all 15 members of the panel are journalists, I still don’t trust them. Because no single body should have the power to regulate the media.”
 
“We are in a very scary situation indeed,” Thepchai concluded.
 
 
Panel speakers (from left to right) Pirongrong Ramasoota, Supinya Klangnarong and Thepchai Yong