Is Thailand's reform council working to control the media?

Is Thailand's reform council working to control the media?
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during an event titled "The Instruction on the Procedures of Members of the National Reform Council" at the Army Club in Bangkok September 4, 2014.
PHOTO: Reuters

THE National Reform Council (NRC) on Monday deliberated a report by its committee on media and information technology reform. The meeting focused on supervision of media, rights and liberties of responsible media, and preventing intervention in the media.

The report suggested a draft law on the protection of media rights and freedom, promoting ethical conduct, and standards of the media profession. An interesting part of the bill is a proposal to set up an professional council to regulate the mass media under the name "National Mass Media Council".

The council would have the legal power to register members, as well as issue and revoke membership. This is viewed as an attempt by the authorities to register media professionals and control the mass media.

Although the council would consist mostly of professionals from various media groups, much of its budget would come from the government, which would make it easy for intervention by state authorities.

The bill proposes that the occupational council get its budget from five sources - the government, 5 per cent at least Bt50 million (S$1.97 million) from revenue the public television Thai PBS has to contribute to the state coffers, additional state subsidy, revenue from the council's work, and donations.

That would mean the council won't be independent. It would have to come under the control of the government. At least the council would have to be accountable for the Budget Bureau about its spending of state funds.

Moreover, with the "additional state subsidy" and the minimum Bt50 million fund a year, this body would be viewed as not independent.

Some NRC members warned that the power to issue and revoke membership permits might turn this proposed council into a mafia-like body.

The mass media have progressed tremendously over the past three to four decades. Previously, there were a limited number of major media outlets - but today they are numerous. And today anyone can become part of the media, thanks to the numerous channels available, including social media.

The media do not need to have more rights and liberties than general members of the public. People have the right to know, to be informed and to voice opinions. So do the media professionals. Restriction of media freedom is tantamount to limitation of the people's rights and liberties.

This proposed new law is not a surprise. But it is suspected there could be a hidden agenda behind this bill. Proponents of the bill say it is aimed at boosting the media's ethical standards and promoting media rights and liberties. But critics claim that this is an attempt by the powers-that-be to gain legitimacy as they gain control of the media.

Some members of the media have joined post-coup bodies with a promise to protect the profession's interest and media freedom. But finally, they end up becoming rubber stamps, particularly those involving this proposed new law to limit media rights and liberties. Their presence in the post-coup bodies simply allows the powers-that-be to claim that, "We have let you in to represent your people."

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