Truth and consequences

The bill is called the Protection of Media Rights and Freedom and the Promotion of Ethics and Professional Standards Bill, and it has courted controversy and inspired debate since it was proposed by the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA).

The points of concern range from the definition of “media” and the compulsory registration of media workers to the much-criticised National Media Profession Council.

The draft bill presented by the NRSA won’t just apply to conventional media outlets. It extends to every part-time internet blogger, podcaster or avid social media user with a significant following. So if you like airing your views online, from your everyday hurdles to politics and culture, you’re likely to be categorised as a “journalist”.

At a time when anyone and everyone can be in the media, the proposal has sparked outrage among freedom of expression advocates, as well as professional journalists, many of whom view it as government interference.

Initially, the NRSA planned for every single media worker to register with state agencies — and obtain a license — or face penalties that can go up to prison sentences. Although this clause has been scrapped since and replaced with an obligation to obtain a “certificate”, the draft bill still contains its fair share of thorny issues, its detractors say.

Meanwhile the bill also proposed to set up a 15-member National Media Profession Council, which would include government agents — namely, the permanent secretaries of the Prime Minister’s Office and Culture Ministry — during a transitional five-year period.

While the bill is now at the National Legislative Assembly and will undergo a public hearing, LIFE gauges the temperature by talking to three journalists from diverse platforms and roles. We asked them about their views on the bill and the consequences they believe will follow — both for media professionals and media consumers. At the end of the day, we are after all the recipients of media channels’ reports.

Pramed Lakpetch

Thai Journalists Association president and Thairath political reporter with 20 years of experience

If the media bill passes in its current state, how will you be affected?

As a professional journalist, this bill will have disastrous consequences for me. It is highly possible that I will not be able to report the news truthfully, straightforwardly or be critical of the government’s policies.

My role is to explain those policies to the public. But if I happen to do so in a way that displeases the authorities, it could get very dangerous for me, with government agents sitting on the committee.

Past experiences, when such harsh media bills were enforced, have proven this.

What consequences will the media bill have on the media landscape?

My profession and peers will be similarly affected. We will face more intimidation than we have now, and we may have to censor ourselves or face adverse consequences.

However, it is very difficult to assess the practical consequences this bill will have, since the draft lacks so many details as of now. However, it remains a very dangerous plan that authorities wish to enforce.

What is your definition of ‘media’ in this time and place?

Personally, I think that a ‘media worker’ is someone who reports the news truthfully, responsibly and regularly.

However, legislators have another definition, a broader one, that could end up putting all of us at risk.

In the future, if this bill is passed in its current state, anyone conveying the news or sharing information — that is, today, practically everyone who owns a smartphone and uses social media platforms including messaging applications — will be examined by the committee.

What do you think about registration?

This new certificate clause, that they have replaced the ‘license’ obligation with, is no different from their original plan. Although we are not provided with much practical details yet, it clearly shows the government’s intention to interfere in the media’s work.

Is the media in Thailand out of control? Should there be regulation and, if so, how should it be done?

I personally don’t believe that the Thai media is out of control. We are governed by many laws — both criminal and civil laws. The Computer Crime Act or the defamation laws are just a few examples out of many.

However, such legal procedures take time before they are successfully carried out. I think that this slow rhythm has led the public to believe that the media can do anything they want and not face the consequences.

By accelerating those procedures and bringing culprits to justice, we can make media consumers or victims of wrongdoing feel more protected, and regain trust from our audience.

Teepagorn Wuttipitayamongkol

Editor-in-chief of The Matter, an online news and feature magazine

If the media bill passes in its current state, how will you be affected?

Teepagorn “Champ” Wuttipitayamongkol Photo© Salmon Books

In their last revision of the draft, legislators removed the penalties they had previously integrated to the bill and replaced the license with an obligation to obtain a certificate. However, they do not specify what purpose the certification will serve. We don’t know what the consequences will be, if you don’t have a certification, for example.

Our team at The Matter has discussed this possibility. If there’s really an obligation to register or to obtain a license or certification, we’ll comply, in order to continue to do our work. But if there are conditions attached that we don’t agree with, we will fight them. And I believe we won’t be alone in this fight

What consequences will the media bill have on the media landscape?

At the moment, we have a draft bill that’s quite broad and we don’t know the details yet. These details are important, because they’ll allow us to see exactly the legislators’ vision on how they wish to regulate or control the media.

We will also have to scrutinise when and how the committee and government will use the law. It will be a case-by-case examination.

But for the moment, legislators are sending a message that’s rather aggressive. Most countries don’t have such severe laws on the media.

Today, we are already censoring ourselves and tread very carefully. Apparently, they believe it’s not enough. It will be tougher for us to work.

What is your definition of ‘media’ in this time and place?

I think that everyone can be part of the ‘media’ today. Whenever someone comes out to point at a social injustice, a flaw in a government policy and voice it and this content gets read and shared widely, they are doing the work of a media outlet.

Although legislators have recently scrapped the obligation for media workers to register and obtain a license from the draft bill, what are your thoughts on the issue?

I think it’s impractical. There are many pages that have more than 10,000 followers. Page administrators don’t control the number of their followers either. Will everyone have to register once they plan on creating a new page? It seems that it will likely be a mess.

Is the media in Thailand out of control? Should there be regulation and, if so, how should it be done?

Many people in Thailand think that it’s out of control. Even if the media self-regulates, they won’t trust us, or believe that we are doing so.

I would like to see media organisations come together and draft a code of conduct. Media outlets that follow this code of conduct should get some sort of certification mark, to show media consumers that they are following a set of rules and can be trusted — and to distinguish themselves from other outlets that don’t.

But at the end of the day, even if such certification mark existed, would audiences look at it? Audiences also play a large role in this matter.

If you complain about people killing themselves on Facebook Live, don’t watch this kind of content. If there’s no audience, will people still want to create such videos?

Sa-nguan Khumrungroj

Citizen journalist with 40 years of experience working in the field

If the media bill passes in its current state, how will you be affected?

As a citizen journalist working independently, how can I obtain a certificate from my employer? How will a freelance journalist get one?

And if there’s a news emergency, and I happen to be on location to cover it, but don’t have a certificate to show the authorities, what will I do? Will I be prevented from reporting this event to my audience?

What consequences will the media bill have on the media landscape?

The authorities are clearly afraid of online journalists, citizen journalists like myself or tools such as Facebook Live. On the contrary, I believe that everyone should be encouraged to become a citizen journalist.

As a professional news man, I believe that the word media shouldn’t be separated from the adjective ‘mass’. We are media at the service of the people. We do not serve the interests of the government.

The government already has its own means of communication — whether it be through its Public Relations Department or government spokesmen.

However, I don’t believe the new bill will change much. The government’s grip on the media has already tightened considerably. So many orders that violate freedom of expression and freedom of the press have already been issued under the ruling junta.

Also, the media in Thailand relies too heavily on government spokesmen — whether at Government House or ministries. Many news report that come out today are just passing on messages that journalists are being fed.

Media outlets are so afraid of missing out on a piece of information that their competition might print or air, they end up conveying it as well.

Plus, our country is not big on law enforcement. The media today already doesn’t respect much rules.

What is your definition of ‘media’ in this time and place?

The expression ‘famous pages’ used by legislators is really too broad. There is a multitude of web pages that have many followers, some can include content that’s totally journalistic — I’m talking about pornographic sites or others.

But they’re putting us in the same basket. For me, there is professional media and citizen journalists. I have 40 years experience in journalism and I do my work responsibly. But as a citizen journalist, I don’t have my hands tied, I can inquire freely. I’m not forced to listen to a spokesman feed me stories as well.

What do you think about registration?

Legislators have turned it into a certificate, which is not so different. It’s like tying our hands. There’s a risk that individual journalists will be blacklisted or banned and prevented from reporting the news truthfully.

Is the media in Thailand out of control? Should there be regulation and, if so, how should it be done?

The media has sure broken a lot of ethical rules. Personally, I believe that we have too many professional organisations that could be assembled into one. That will make it easier for the profession to be regulated, without needing the government to interfere.