Thai Draft Law a New Foot on the Press’s Neck

Thailand, which already has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on press freedom, appears about to add even more, with a draft law that critics say would place the media completely under state control.

The Media Reform Working Group, made up of representatives from the Thai Journalists Association, the National Press Council of Thailand, the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association and the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, said the new “reform” law would bring journalists under the power of the state, “something that has never happened before and can be very dangerous for society.”

Immediately after the May 22, 2014 military coup that ended parliamentary democracy in Thailand for the 13th time, the army called in individual publishers for “attitude adjustments,” ending outright what had been a comparatively free press, both Thai and English languages.

The new draft law on “media reform” appeared on July 20 from the National Reform Council, a 250-member advisory group dominated by generals and the Bangkok elite to advise on a new national constitution after the generals abolished an earlier one after seizing power. The new constitution is expected to be completed by the end of the month. Although the military said elections would be followed by elections this year, they have been put off until at least 2017.

The new press law creates a professional media council supposedly to promote ethics and media standards along with self-regulation. According to the Media Reform Working Group, however, members of the press would be forced to register and obtain professional certification, which the group said would give the council the right to exercise excessive control.

"In other words, the media's self-regulation ability, which has been evolving over the past two decades, would go backwards," the watchdog group said. "The NRC's endorsement of this draft law would mean the media will be under complete state control. If the government has ill intentions, then the media will come under its power completely."

The group described media reform as a sensitive subject that needs thorough consideration. “Hence, the NRC should not rush to meet its deadline, but should be open to recommendations and review all flaws, and that media reform must be based on reality and social change as well as the history of media development,” the group said.

It is unlikely that is on the cards anytime soon.

“There is still strong opposition to a free press in Thailand,” the Bangkok Post said in an editorial. “The military regime continues to remind the country and the media that "there are limits" to free expression. The draft of the new constitution contains the harshest limitations on speech since the last days of the serial military dictators in 1973.”

Although Thailand ranked as high as 59th of 167 countries in press freedom in 2004, it fell to 130th in 2010 and has descended far below that since.

The draft law dovetails with several others, including a Cyber Security Bill approved by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's cabinet to establish a government-run cyber security committee charged with detecting and countering online threats to national security, stability, the military, and economy. The committee would be authorized to access information on personal computers, cell phones and other electronic devices without a court order.

Indeed, as Asia Sentinel reported on July 13, the Thai government has spent nearly US$500,000 to buy software from a Milan, Italy, based company called The Hacking Team that allows governments to spy on the computers of their citizens that is untraceable and able to overcome encryption to capture relevant data

“Without advanced technology, authoritarian regimes would not be able to spy on their citizens,” Reporters Without Borders said. [The hacking team and other such companies] “sell products that are used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information.”

Prayuth makes no bones about the role of the press. It should “play a major role in supporting the government’s affairs, practically creating the understanding of government’s policies to the public, and reduce the conflicts in the society,” he told a press conference earlier this year. Any conception of the press as a counterweight to keep government and the business establishment honest does not appear on his horizon.

“Since imposing martial law in May 2014, he has gagged not only reporters, bloggers and news outlets, but also performers, intellectuals, academics, opposition politicians and anyone regarded as overly critical of himself or his government,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Prayuth's government has imposed a series of other restrictions on the press, Internet, and social media since seizing power including martial law order No. 29, according to the CPJ, “which empowers the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to monitor and access online traffic and social media platforms for threats to national security.”

Violations of the law are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Authorities already have the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to suppress and punish online criticism of the Thai monarchy, which authorities deem as a threat to national security and stability, according to CPJ research, as well as the infamous lese majeste laws, which bans any and all criticism of the king, the queen, the crown prince and princess and, as a result of a reinterpretation of the law by a former Supreme Court justice, criticism of royal development projects, the royal institution, the Chakri Dynasty or any other Thai king, previous or deceased monarchs. Lese majeste cases can be brought by any complainant who goes to the police to deliver an accusation. Hundreds of victims have been arrested under the law.

“What with interrogations of journalists, raids on leading news organizations and plans for draconian legislation, the military government is subjecting the media to constant harassment,” according to Reporters Without Borders. The press watchdog organization pointed Prayuth’s not entirely playful threat to “execute” journalists who don’t toe the line at a news conference in March. “Reporters Without Borders condemns the government’s policy of controlling and intimidating the media.”