The Thai Journalists Association late last month issued a year-end summary of its work, in which it called 2016 "the year of government interference". That sad title was certainly earned. The TJA, however, may have spoken just a little early. The junta-appointed National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) is considering a measure to strip independence from the media and hand intimidation and a strong dose of press control to the government. It would make a mockery of the constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press.
The TJA has called a meeting for Sunday to discuss the NRSA's proposal. In fact, "proposal" is an understatement. As of today, it seems the reform assembly is determined to strip some freedom from the media. ACM Kanit Suwannate, who heads the media reform steering committee of the junta's group, has indicated he is willing to discuss the draft law with media people. But he has not said he is willing to scrap it.
ACM Kanit and colleagues of the NRSA have given their proposed legislation a rather deceptive description. They say it will enhance the protection of rights, promote ethical standards in the media and ensure the press is staffed with, and run by, professionals.
No one could argue with the goals. However, reasonable people should oppose the means which the military regime's "reformers" intend to use.
The bottom line, free of jargon and Orwellian language, is the NRSA intends to put the government in charge of the Thai press. The permanent secretaries of four ministries would sit on a new "national media council" to order and guide media reform. As the TJA president Wanchai Wongmeechai put it, "This is not media reform but an attempt to control the media."
The details of the proposed government control are even more chilling to anyone who favours an independent media. The worst section of the bill says that while only media professionals can run press outlets, every media professional must be licensed by the government.
This is a huge step backwards and is even worse than the hated Article 42 of past dictators, a law permitting the shutdown of any newspaper that displeased them. With democratic advances after the 1973 revolution, Article 42 went rightfully into history.
ACM Kanit has listened to the TJA and other press groups opposed to his measure and has received a counter-proposal from the journalists. He has waved them off without comment. Right now, on the eve of the NRSA taking up the press-control bill for a vote, his position appears to be one of no compromise.
This is disappointing. A free country requires a free press. One requires the other. Putting the government in effective control of press reform is the equivalent of having wolves watch the sheep. It may not be completely certain that the wolves will start eating the flock, but it is a sure thing they will never stop intimidating them.
Government presence on a press panel and licensing of journalists are never part of a free press. The media and the public it serves are capable of continuing to reform the press, which has never stopped.
New media, changing public perception and an ever-evolving society ensure that press reform will continue, and government control can in no way make it better.
ACM Kanit, his steering committee and all NRSA members can no doubt contribute to the evolution of the Thai media. Establishing and then putting a heavy hand on a new press council, however, will set back both the media and reform.