Media bodies in Thailand are wary of the new bill which includes a ฿25 million media fund and the control it may give to officials over content and coverage. The bill is being pushed by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a leading member of the junta from 2014 to 2019 who is particularly responsible for state security and has long championed efforts to regulate the newly emerging media order.

A joint sitting of Thailand’s parliament on Tuesday failed to advance the passage of a bill promoting regulation of the media put forward by the government last year and which appears to be a key priority for it to pass. In September 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is particularly responsible for internal security, urged the Speaker of the House of Representatives to expedite the passage of the bill. 

Three-hour meeting was cancelled on Tuesday due to a lack of quorum as MPs spoke out against the law as both inappropriate and badly timed. The new law has come under fire from media groups and representative bodies in Thailand who are suspicious of the motives of the government and suspect a ‘hidden agenda’ to establish more control over Thailand’s vibrant media environment. MPs who spoke included the Bhumjaithai MP from Sisaket, Siripong Angkhasakulkiat (inset left) and Jirayu Huangsap (inset), the Pheu Thai MP from Bangkok. The bill has been pushed by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan (right) who asked House of Representatives speaker Chuan Leekpai to expedite it last September after it was referred to parliament by the cabinet early in 2021.

Government legislation aimed at introducing a regulatory body for the media, the promotion of ethics and professional standards initially stalled in the House of Representatives on Tuesday due to a lack of a quorum.

Before this, the combined House and Senate assembly heard vociferous opposition from a Bangkok based Pheu Thai Party MP and the independent-minded Bhumjaithai Party MP for Sisaket, Mr Siripong Angkhasakulkiat.

Media professionals are increasingly anxious about the new bill being fast-tracked through parliament

The proposed law is officially titled the Bill on the Protection and Promotion of Media Rights, Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards.

Media professionals in the kingdom are becoming increasingly anxious about the proposed law which appears to be on a fast track through parliament including Tuesday’s joint sitting to review it.

They fear that ‘ethics’ and a lack of ‘professionalism’ could become grounds used by the country’s official establishment to mute or tone down more biting media coverage of current affairs after several years of improvement for press freedom in the kingdom

Last Friday, Mr Supan Rakchuea of the News Broadcast Council, told Thai PBS, a state-owned news outlet, that the enthusiasm shown by the government for the law made him anxious as to its motives.

Deputy PM Prawit, last September, requested that the House Speaker Chuan Leekpai give it priority, fears it could be used to undermine press freedom

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and leader of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party is understood to have written to parliamentary speaker Chuan Leekpai on September 6th last advocating speedier measures to have it approved.

General Prawit was also very involved with the Digital Economy and Society Ministry in the establishment of Thailand’s official Fake News Center launched by the Digital Economy and Society Ministry in November 2019.

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

In response to the legislation, the News Broadcast Council of Thailand says it opposes the measure saying it represents duplication and possible interference with Section 35 of the 2017 Constitution which has already been tested by the courts and upholds the rights of freedom of expression exercised by media professionals.

On October 22nd 2020, the Criminal Court reversed course on an original order shutting down Voice TV and other online broadcasters at the request of the Digital Economy and Society Ministry based on national security grounds and under the then state of emergency.

Voice TV ordered shut by a Thai court as action against media outlets proceeds despite assurances

The court, two days later, however, rescinded the shut down order despite last-minute representations from the Prime Minister’s Office based on Section 35 of the 2017 Constitution.

Opposition on the floor from 2 MPs, one Bangkok-based Pheu Thai representative and the other an independent-minded Bhumjaithai Party MP

One of the main opposition speakers against the proposed new law, on Tuesday, was Bangkok Pheu Thai MP Mr Jirayu Huangsap who addressed the joint meeting describing the proposed bill as a product of the junta era and in particular the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), the rubber stamp legislative assembly of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) or the junta which ruled Thailand from 2014 until 2019 under the current prime minister, General Prayut Chan ocha.

Minister signals a move to resurrect a national internet gateway and stronger online controls

The junta government and successive ministers in the coalition have long sought to create more oversight of media operations in Thailand spanning a range of proposals including a single internet gateway such as has been introduced in Cambodia which technically facilitates state censorship or a proposed national news pool, a centralised state news agency to control significant national news stories in particular coverage of emergencies or sensitive situations.

Digital Economy ministry has, for a long time now, proposed measures to rein in the growing, vibrant and more complex media environment in Thailand

The last two Digital Economy and Society ministers including Mr Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn have pushed such proposals which have been rebuffed and in general, are not supported by the media while the courts have upheld a more robust view of press freedom under the 2017 Constitution than had previously been expected.

Thailand’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index rose dramatically in 2022 but its overall score fell

Thailand, despite ongoing controversy over the Section 112 lèse-majesté provision and the use by government security agencies of Pegasus spy software, has managed to see a reasonable improvement in recent years in press freedom making it an outlier in Southeast Asia.

This is also coming in the face of efforts by more conservative elements in the government to exercise more control over the media. 

The demand to do this has grown due to significant changes to the media landscape in Thailand where traditional media is being challenged by what Thai officials term ‘OTT platforms’ which operate outside current controls, for instance those imposed on Thai television stations which have begun to lose ground to disparate competitors who are unlicensed and not answerable to Thai regulatory agencies.

Law a throwback to junta-era ambitions to control the information flow and media landscape as a matter of state security. MP talked of a ‘hidden agenda’

In parliament on Tuesday, Mr Jirayu described the proposed legislation as a retrograde step that harkened back to ambitions held by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to exercise control over Thailand’s media landscape.

He described the bill which speaks to self-regulation, oversight and ethics as having a hidden agenda. He said, at this time, such a law was highly inappropriate.

He called for any such provision to be aired and put to a public vote in a national referendum.

‘It must be removed from the House of Commons, and the people should have a referendum,’ he declared.

Election on the PM after 12-hour session obscured real political realities challenging any new government

The bill was also fiercely opposed by Bhumjaithai Party MP Siripong Angkhasakulkiat who in June 2019 abstained in the vote to elect General Prayut Chan ocha as prime minister despite the party whip.

Law is already out of date said the Bhumjaithai Party Sisaket MP due to massive changes in social media including the rise of the Chinese giant Tik Tok

He said the legislation was already well out of date having been drafted in the junta era when social media sites such as the giant Chinese Tik Tok site did not even exist.

‘The bill is out-of-date, and the government should rescind it,’ he told the joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Eventually, a lack of quorum prevented a vote from being taken on the bill’s passage to the next stage and the meeting was cancelled after three hours of debate.

This was the first reading of the bill submitted earlier last year by the cabinet. The law sets out to regulate media standards and ethics in line with international principles.

It would impose new demands on media operators.

Opponents of the bill fear such a requirement could eventually be used to censor or control Thailand’s vibrant fourth estate which has survived and maintained a relatively high standard of reporting and freedom despite the country’s long history of political instability and military coups.

One aspect highlighted was the proposed new law would allow reporters and editors of state-sponsored media to refuse to follow instructions from their employers or publishers where such actions were thought by them unethical or unprofessional according to standards to be laid down by a regulatory body.

Senator defended the new law saying it had been vetted by key players in the media industry and the Council of State, media body wants it withdrawn

The meeting heard from Senator Kamnoon Sidhisamarn who has often been critical of the government and Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha particularly concerning police reform, in support of the legislation.

He told the meeting that the bill had received the imprimatur of the Council of State and key media figures who have reviewed it.

However, the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA), on Monday, came out in opposition to the new law.

In its statement, it said that the cabinet had prematurely tabled the bill to parliament without adequate consultation with the media industry.

It said that the creation of a Thai media council would probably be a step towards controlling and influencing media coverage in Thailand thereby constraining press freedom.

It called for the bill to be withdrawn by the government.

Join the Thai News forum, follow Thai Examiner on Facebook here
Receive all our stories as they come out on Telegram here
Follow Thai Examiner here

Further reading:

Voice TV ordered shut by a Thai court as action against media outlets proceeds despite assurances

Police: truthful reporting not a target as a state official is arrested over false online coup reports in Chachoengsao

Defiant Thanathorn vows to prove his innocence after being charged with Lèse-majesté offence in Bangkok

Minister warns Facebook of possible legal action including Computer Crime Act criminal charges

Facebook under investigation over translation blunder as minister criticises the social network

Press conference given by activist and Progressive Movement leader checked by abrupt police visit

Rally’s march on Government House surprises officials with a larger turnout and police in retreat

Police arrest 21 protesters in Bangkok attempting to block the road to be used for planned Royal motorcade

Smaller crowd expected at rally on Wednesday as police gear up security cordon with checkpoints

Police say students have no permission to protest as army chief warns that security will be upheld

New army chief takes the helm this week amid growing tensions and rising public apathy toward politics

Students submit a reform petition to the Privy Council, call for a General Strike in Thailand on October 14th

Western foreigners being blamed by ultra-right for this latest wave of radical student protests

Raised concerns for the defiant student protest being planned for next Saturday and Sunday

Exasperated PM loses patience with press corps over ‘distorted’ online speculation of a coup amid tensions

Army chief denies and rejects rumours of a likely coup as the country faces crisis on key fronts

New ministers take the reins in a formal audience with King Rama X & Queen Suthida at Dusit Palace

Prime Minister indicates that the cabinet reshuffle will be complete very shortly with no problem

Somkid ready to bow out of government as September cabinet reshuffle seems to be on the cards

Election of a new ruling party leader, shifts focus now to the future of the economics czar Somkid and his team

Election of Prawit as Palang Pracharat leader will see more grassroots politics in government