Almost surreptitiously, the Cabinet on October 18 approved a proposed amendment to a piece of legislation that is unquestionably aimed at imposing new controls on press freedom. Earlier suspicions of a clampdown on the media performing their checks and ba
The Pheu Thai Party had campaigned in the election on the platform of “genuine democracy”. It has decried “double standards and injustice”. The rallying cry was for the grassroots people to have a real say in running the country. The “elite” and “privileged” who were controlling the channels of communications were to be replaced by the “real voice of the people”.
If that theme was based on genuine intention and political conviction, the new government should have made it a top priority to demolish all the rules and regulations that stood in the way of the common people expressing their opinion in such a way that they could do away with controls and interference in the people’s freedom of expression.
The proposed amendment to the Printing Act of 2007 by the Cabinet sends signals in the opposite direction. If passed by Parliament into law, it will give the national police chief the power to censor, close down and threaten the constitutional rights of any newspaper with impunity.
The proposed change will put Thailand back many decades in terms of promoting the rights of the people to scrutinise the work of the powerful and to unravel the corrupt practices of politicians and bureaucrats.
In some respects, it is even worse than the original notorious Printing Act of 1941, which was the hallmark of press restriction under military dictatorship. No periodical renewal of a newspaper publishing license was mentioned. Under the new amendment, every publisher must apply for permission to have his license renewed every five years.
In other words, the media will have to operate under the frightening threat of non-renewal – in addition to the constant possibility of being censored, suspended or closed down for publishing a story that could be interpreted by the “press officer” as “undermining the monarchy, national security and law and order or the good morals of the country”.
In other words, we are in the process of returning to a time when the government could use the police chief to control and threaten any publication that didn’t toe the official line – pure and simple.
The Thai media organisations fought long and hard to free themselves from the shackles of political interference and press censorship. It was a hard-fought victory when a democratically elected government and Parliament agreed to end the dark history of censorship by replacing the 1941 Printing Act with the 2007 Act.
The significance of that legislative change in 2007 was that for the first time, the need to seek a permit from the government to publish opinion was abolished. In its place, publishers only had to register with the Fine Arts Department (instead of the Police Bureau) to pursue their profession. Permission was automatic, and since the law came into force there has been a flourishing of publications of a great diversity that has helped lay the foundation of democracy.
Now, the government seems bent on reversing that trend, despite all the public statements made by the powers-that-be on promoting the “poor people’s rights” to cultivate what they have termed “real democracy”.
Any move to restrict, control and subvert the role of the press to serve as the people’s watchdog and gate-keeper runs counter to the Constitution, of course.
That much-feared “tyranny of the majority” may materialise sooner than we thought possible. But if history is any indication, the fight for press freedom, especially in this digital media landscape, will be extremely robust. Politicians can try to control people’s dissident voice only at their own peril.