Thai lawmakers Monday voted in favor of a military-backed bill that would broadly regulate the nation’s media after some 30 local organizations complained it would curb press freedom dramatically.
The junta-appointed National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) voted for a draft bill of what would be Thailand’s first law governing the media, but it removed a section setting prison terms and fines for unlicensed media members after the organizations had submitted a letter stating their concerns.
Leading figures from the Thai media handed the letter to the vice president of the NRSA, Alongkorn Ponlaboot, as it was deliberating on the draft bill, officially referred to as the Bill on the Protection and Promotion of Media Rights, Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards.
Thai Journalists Association (TJA) members said they worried that the legislation, if passed, would subject media outlets and anyone who directly or indirectly earns income from reporting news to the public without a license to up to three years in prison and a 60,000 baht (U.S. $1,735) fine. It called those punishments too severe.
“We are disturbed by and distrust this action,” TJA President Pramade Lakpetch told reporters witnessing the protest letter delivery at the Parliament on Monday. “When the problem is about the foundation of our home, it makes no sense to repair just the windows and doors. Any reform needs to look at the problem in a holistic manner.”
After receiving the letter, Alongkorn told reporters that the reform committee would consider their concerns.
Following about eight hours of debate among assembly members, the NRSA endorsed a bill that omitted the section setting prison and fines for unregistered media, Thai PBS reported, voting 141 for, 13 against with 17 abstentions. The bill will be amended to reflect the changes agreed to during debate and sent to the cabinet for consideration.
Association members could not be reached late on Monday to answer questions on whether the NRSA had addressed all of the TJA’s stated concerns in the version of the bill that was passed.
The letter raised four points of concern about the bill, including that the draft legislation would empower the National Press Council to issue licenses to media personnel; that it would allow a state representative to sit on the council; and that the bill’s broad provisions could “include all people who criticize or comment on news or information.”
Media should regulate itself
The association’s position is that the media should be permitted to regulate itself. The group said the draft’s interpretation of “journalist” is vague enough to include the general public whose websites and postings are critical of government’s policies.
Since seizing power in a coup three years ago, Thailand’s military government has arrested government critics or people who have posted online content seen as violating the nation’s strict royal defamation laws. The regime, in some cases, has also summoned journalists who have published articles critical of the junta for so-called “attitude adjustment” detention sessions.
The proposed media legislation also goes against the 2017 constitution which states that the people of Thailand have the right to freedom of expression through speech, print materials and other formats, the association’s vice president said.
“We called on the government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha to listen to all sides, especially when deliberating laws that curbs the rights and freedom of the public,” TJA Vice President Chaiyuth Yonpium told BenarNews.
“Such legislation should be drafted by people who know something about the media. Or should the soldiers be the ones who draft it?” Chaiyuth said, adding, “Could it be possible that such legislation be drafted by elected representatives and not be pushed through under an atmosphere where anybody could be summoned (by the military) for attitude adjustment that they often refer to as a seminar?”