Proposed media ‘reform’ bill is redundant and dangerous
A committee tasked by the National Reform Acceleration Council with scrutinising the media has proposed radical changes to the law. The committee members apparently equated “reform” with “control”. The resulting draft law will open the way for politicians and bureaucrats to decide who can or cannot become media professionals.
Under the proposed new rules, anyone who wants to make media their profession would have to seek a licence before being employed. Conferring authorities with licensing power automatically means the same authorities also have the right to deny or revoke the licences.
What’s worse, the draft bill dictates that permanent secretaries of at least four ministries sit on the committee that will issue and revoke licences for individual journalists.
The bill, in a nutshell, would enable the powers-that-be to place their people in the position to control – and thus influence – the work of media professionals in all fields.
Whoever was in political power would be in a position to decide the personnel composition – and therefore the news content – of the media.
The press, if it is to perform its duty as society’s “watchdog – without fear or favour”, must be accountable to the public first and foremost. The government, which the press is meant to watch over, obviously cannot be allowed to dictate the rules by which it will be watched.
If the media is to properly serve its role as a forum for the exchange of ideas and as a watchdog on the government, self-regulation is society’s most practical and desirable mechanism.
Admittedly, self-policing is far from flawless, but the peer-review system, kept in operation with constant social sanctions, should serve as the most effective check on the media.
There have been repeated attempts by certain academics, politicians and bureaucrats to subvert this self-policing model by raising questions about its efficacy – at times labelling the self-regulating press institutions as “paper tigers”. But in this imperfect world, the alternative to self-regulation is nothing short of a “control-and-command” body that would not tolerate dissenting views and would introduce censorship, both direct and otherwise, into the flow of information to the public. The people’s right to know would be severely compromised.
Critics of the self-policing model have been calling for statutory regulation of the media – more or less along the line being promoted by the “media reform” committee. In practice, there is no denying that, once political interference is incorporated in media law, the general public’s right to call those in power to account for their actions immediately disappears.
Historically, moves to regulate the media are usually about protecting the powers-that-be – and not the public interest – by undermining freedom of speech.
In one way or another, statutory regulation has been used as a tool for media censorship. In Thailand, there are three common ways in which legal regulation is employed to restrict press freedom: statutory controls on licensing and registration, the creation of nominally independent regulatory bodies with built-in avenues for political influence, and legal imposition of vague or burdensome content requirements.
The legal, all-embracing language used in the draft bill also conjures frightening scenarios. The alarmingly loose definition of “public interest, public morals or law and order” means that all news media will operate under the constant threat of being sanctioned.
There have been discussions about the introduction of a co-regulatory system, combining elements of legal and self-policing to form a new and self-contained regulatory system. This alternative may offer a “third way”. But on closer scrutiny, the proposed co-regulation is neither here nor there. In fact, even the slightest semblance of government interference in any proposed “regulating system” would render it futile. In the end, there is no such thing as a “benign” government role as far as freedom of expression is concerned. As far as the press is concerned, it’s either free (no government involvement whatsoever) or not free (with government interference rearing its ugly head, either on the surface or underneath).
It has been proven again and again that self –regulation has advantages over statutory or co-regulation: It lends credibility and trust to the media. When citizens suspect that the “free flow of information” is being undermined, they lose interest in the media and public/national debate is diminished as a consequence.
Another sticky problem: With the convergence of media platforms made possible by advanced technology, it becomes almost impossible for countries to insist on statutory regulation. Or else, they may end up regulating just a tiny fraction of media sites. Don’t advocates of the bill realise that cyberspace does not take kindly or easily to statutory regulation?
In this connection, the bill, if passed in its present form, would become a laughingstock all around. How does the draft define a “media professional?” Would it cover anyone who posts a story or picture on the social media?
If so, every citizen with a mobile phone would have to seek a permit to be able post any message online.
After all is said and done, the fundamental need for self-regulation of the media occurs through being accountable only to the public. Neither statutory nor co-regulation can guarantee this need.
If we are serious about achieving a Thailand 4.0 status, one of the most important requirements is that citizens have a healthy, vibrant media with freely available and informed discourse on the future direction of the country.
The proposed bill, if approved and implemented, will push the country back to Thailand 1.0.