The suggestion comes as four more people have been arrested in Thailand for spreading fake news under Thailand’s draconian Computer Crime Act and authorities appear to be toughening their rhetoric including a threat to seize the assets of online media outlets linked with the perceived fake news threat.

Thailand’s Digital Economy and Society Minister has suggested that control of news in emergencies and situations deemed to be a national crisis, should be handed to one state-appointed agency. The objective of such a measure would be to control and eliminate ‘inappropriate content’ that may be harmful to the public. The proposal has drawn a sharp response from media professionals who warn any movement in this direction is an attack on the freedom of the press in Thailand and free speech.

Thailand’s Minister for the Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta has floated a proposal for the government to take control of news coverage relating to national emergencies and crises this week. It comes as police arrested four more people charged with spreading fake news about the Convid 19 coronavirus from China. The idea has drawn sharp criticism from the media industry.

Thailand’s Digital Economy and Society Minster Buddhipongse Punnakanta on Monday floated the proposal that the government may designate an official news outlet or agency to monopolise and control the news flow concerning emergencies and states of crises as they occur.

The minister was speaking to Thailand’s upper house, the Senate. He suggested that it was time to ‘explore ways to regulate the media and control social media’ before making his proposal concerning the coverage of emergency incidents or crises. He later posted his thoughts on the matter in a Facebook post.

Minister appeared to be thinking of the Korat atrocity on February 9th when he expressed himself

The proposal was made by the minister responsible for the operation of Thailand’s fake news centre launched by the government last November. The agency and its website has since provided valuable guidance to the public since then differentiated and flagging reported stories to be either true or false.

The minister was speaking in the aftermath of the February 9th attack by a rogue soldier on the busy Terminal 21 shopping centre in Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima which saw 29 lives in all taken by the soldier that day, 26 of them in the precincts of the shopping mall.

Opinions poll in January already showed confidence in public security in Thailand at a low ebb

The attack came after another outrage at a shopping centre in Lopburi in January when 3 people were killed including a toddler by a school director.

Such incidents have begun to undermine public confidence in Thailand’s security situation according to a January NIDA opinion poll.

Since then, the Terminal 21 atrocity, as well as the coronavirus threat cannot have helped nor the weakening economy.

Powers to remove media content

During the February attack in Korat, Facebook responded swiftly by taking down the soldier’s account and removing his videos. In the days afterwards, all inappropriate content that violated the site’s standards was also removed.

However, Minster Buddhipongse has expressed concern that some inappropriate content to his mind was not removed across the social media sphere and that Thai authorities do not have the legal power to order such action under current laws.

Thailand’s existing fake News centre reveals  80% of stories investigated found to be fake news

The coronavirus outbreak in China and coverage of the crisis is also believed to be occupying the minds of authorities.

Last Friday, the ministry announced the formation of two committees to engage with the operations of Thailand’s fake news centre which recently suggested that nearly 80% of coronavirus content and news reports referred to it by the public through its relatively successful website has been found to be fake news.

Six people arrested under Thailand’s draconian Computer Crime Act in connection with fake news linked the Convid 19 coronavirus virus

Thai authorities have also now arrested six people in connection with fake news linked to the outbreak including four just this week and two at the end of last month.

Those arrested face prosecution under Thailand’s draconian Computer Crime Act which can lead prison sentences of up to 7 years if convicted by the courts.

Security chiefs threaten to seize assets of online media contributing to the spread of fake news

The ramping up of rhetoric by Thai officials and authorities against fake news has also brought warnings from the police and security services that online media outlets involved in the spread of fake news may also face asset seizures and confiscation under existing powers available to the government.

Newspaper editorial warns of a shift to the authoritarianism of communist regimes such as China, Laos and Vietnam

The proposal by the minister to take control of news reporting on emergencies and crises has brought a hostile reaction for Thai media professionals.

In a strongly worded editorial this week, Thailand’s leading English speaking newspaper, the Bangkok Post, warned that the direction that Thai government policy, if this proposal were to be pursued, would be moving distinctly towards censorship and a similar type of media oversight to communist countries such as China, Laos and Vietnam.

Move would undermine public trust

It warned that it would take very little to extend the definition of crisis and emergency to essentially control public discourse in Thailand.

This would inevitably lead to the government concealing information from the public and severe erosion of trust between the public and government agencies.

The President of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, Peerawat Chotithummo, said this: ‘I think this idea is inappropriate, if only state news agencies are allowed to report news when there’s a crisis, people will question its credibility.’

Slippery slope towards state censorship

A well-known anchorwoman in Thailand, Thapanee Eadsrichai, who works with the leading Channel 3 TV station and who also runs a successful news agency also responded: ‘Indeed, reporters can sometimes make errors, but this can be minimized by setting up a news centre. If there’s no one to officially keep reporters updated with the latest developments, they will have to seek their own sources for information.’

Ms Thapanee described the idea as a slippery slope towards state censorship.

Media industry call instead for more support and transparency for the media to report accurately

The industry leaders suggested that the government should be looking at providing extra resources and government source information to reporters and the media community in emergency events and on issues representing a national crisis such as the current Convid 19 coronavirus outbreak.

They have pointed to the success of reporting on the Tham Luang caves emergency which saw Thailand and its authorities emerge in a very positive light.

Chinese authorities engaged in a strenuous crackdown surrounding the coronavirus outbreak 

It only takes a cursory examination of what is happening in China to see how counterproductive and perilous attempts to control and subvert the media and the open use of social media can be at a time of crisis.

China is currently involved in another crackdown even after the death of Doctor Dr Li Wenliang who first exposed the virus publicly on social media discreetly to select online group and was suppressed by Wuhan police in late December 2019 and the first week of 2020 when he was officially reprimanded for spreading rumours and causing panic.

Two leading activists and citizen reporters arrested

Authorities in China last week arrested two leading activists and citizen journalists Fang Bin, a former businessman and Lawyer Chien Quishi formerly a human rights activist who turned into a video journalist.

This has ironically only fanned the flames of doubt concerning China’s current efforts and attempt to control the problem among engaged domestic and international audiences.

International news agencies had used both sources to tell the true story of what is happening in China

International news agencies such as the BBC, AFP and Reuters have all referenced the activities of these citizen reporters.

Western media is widely followed in China. The latest move by Chinese authorities is to crack down on internet VPN devices as the Communist Party’s censorship apparatus has gone into overdrive.

The party itself and its leadership have publicly accepted that the virus outbreak threatens social stability in China.

Fang Bin’s short-lived but influential career in journalism began just at the end of January and ended last week in his arrest by police.

The businessman turned reporter only ever promised to ‘report the actual situation’ and to do ‘his best’ at reporting the truth.

In any free country, that should be good enough.

Further reading:

Virus threat still acute with 35th infection in Thailand while China’s death toll ticks ever higher

Massacre in Nakhon Ratchasima on Saturday has added to Thailand’s woes and public insecurity

Fake news centre ready as rights activists push for the toning down of the Computer Crime Act