OPINION: Media reform bill will defang our most important Thai watchdog

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - The draft now in its final stages would hand future govts unprecedented power to stem freedom of information.

The new media bill being thrashed out in the junta-appointed reform council has a sweet-sounding name that belies its objectives. The bill to “defend press freedom and promote media ethics and professional standards” is being promoted as an essential element of reforms being pursued under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

But it appears that proponents of the bill have a very different interpretation of “reform” from that shared by media practitioners and much of the rest of society. Far from being what its name suggests, the bill essentially harks back to the dark days when muzzling of the media was the order of the day.

The bill seeks to set up a national body with statutory power to penalise media that breach professional ethics. Penalties would include heavy fines and possible revocation of licences to operate.  This is certainly a major departure from the self-regulation that currently governs the media industry.

The bill is now in its final stage at the media reform committee in the National Reform Steering Assembly. Drafters insist it answers growing calls for the Thai media to be more responsible and accountable. In their opinion, self-regulation is a myth and a proven failure. It is obvious to them that licensing journalists and their organisations and imposing heavy fines for ethical breaches are more effective tools in taming the media.

Media professionals, foreseeing the chilling effect of the bill on journalism, have been up in arms against it from the very beginning. Opposition has been galvanised by the proposed composition of the media ethics council and its scope of powers. The bill requires four of the 13 members of the council to be representatives of the government – specifically permanent secretaries of the PM’s Office and the ministries of finance, culture and digital economy. These permanent fixtures in the council would ensure that the powers-that-be always have a major say in deliberating and ruling on media disputes taken up by the body.  

The bill would turn the decades-old environment of self-regulation upside down. The principle of self-regulation is a guarantee that the media will not be subject to political interference.  It’s vital that the media in a democratic society can function professionally and independently without fear or favour. But if the drafters of the new bill have their way, a “Big Brother” would watch over journalists and their organisations. 

Five representatives of media organisations would sit on the council, but there is no guarantee that they could balance the power of the state. Under the bill, any journalists anywhere can band together as an association and claim representation in the council through a self-selection process. We can imagine dozens of new media organisations springing up overnight. And it would be no surprise if many of them were supported by political groups.

The four remaining council members will come from academia and civil society. Once again, the four permanent secretaries will have a say in their selection. And since the operation of the council will be financed with an annual budget from the Finance Ministry, the power of the state over the body will be overwhelming.  

Proponents of the bill argue that this is the only way the media can be effectively regulated. To bolster their case they are seizing on the dwindling public trust in the mainstream media, which has faced a constant barrage of attacks for partisanship that many say has inflamed political polarisation over the past decade. 

It would thus come as no surprise if a media-sceptic public were receptive to the bill rather than sympathetic towards its target. But the question the media reform committee must ask is whether it is really doing the country a service with this legislation. 

In truth, what we are witnessing is not reform but regression.  Having state power represented in what should be an independent media-oversight body is unprecedented. One basic function of the media in any democratic society is to hold the government accountable to the public through news reporting and investigative journalism.

But with four senior government officials handed the power to penalise journalists and revoke their licences, how can the media play their role of watchdog without fear or favour?  

In fact, permanent secretaries – who are top-ranking bureaucrats and in most cases de facto political appointees – should themselves be subject to frequent media scrutiny. But under the bill they would be watching over journalists’ shoulders.

Self-regulation may not be a perfect system. History shows that holding each other to professional standards leaves much to be desired. The need to survive commercially has also meant competing media have at times blurred the lines on basic professional ethics. 

But self-regulation has proven to be the most workable system in countries with a free press. It not only pre-empts partisan interference but also promotes an environment for professional and independent media.

Complaints about the performance of the media are frequently heard, but we have witnessed a positive response from the profession itself. 

There is now a greater awareness among journalists of the need to regain public trust with more professional reporting. News outlets are working more closely with media organisations in enforcing the code of conduct, and they are more responsive to complaints and criticism from the public. Several major newspapers and TV operators are also making an unprecedented move by instituting internal ethics mechanisms that also respond to audience complaints.

Politicians and those in power are understandably opposed to media self-regulation. What they prefer is an environment in which they can exercise their power over public information. Under normal governance conditions, there is no way that politicians could introduce a bill to curtail press freedom like the reform committee is doing. So the media “reform” taking shape under the military junta is an answer to their prayers. 

The drafters need to be reminded that by the time the bill comes into effect, civilian politicians will mostly likely be back in power. So what they are doing now is essentially handing the incoming politicians exactly what they badly want on a silver platter.

Thepchai Yong is group editor-in-chief of The Nation and president of The Thai Broadcast Journalists Association.    

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