Media groups in Thailand protest against media bill that would lead to state control of the press and restrict freedom of expression.

Thirty media organisations in Thailand, including the National Union of Journalists of Thailand (NUJT) and the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the International Federation of Journalists and the South East Asia Journalist Unions came together last week to protest against the “Protection of Media rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards” bill drafted by the government’s National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA).

The proposed bill requires all media professionals – journalists, tv hosts, radio presenters and more – to be licensed by the government and carry a media identity card, which could be revoked (as well as their license) with heavy fines if they are considered to have breached ethical codes.

The bill would also establish an external body, the National Professional Media Council with the power to penalise news outlets for violating professional standards, receive complaints about news outlets and act upon them. The 13 members of this council would be members of government ministries as well as the office of the Prime Minister.

The links with the government would thus be strong and undeniable, but the NRSA argues that the bill will promote responsible journalism and hinder misreporting and corruption. The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, supported the bill stating that all professionals have to be trained and standardised, including journalists.

The NRSA’s sub committee have already spent a year taking into account all involved parties’ opinions to finalise a draft bill that sought to promote self-regulation and outlined the media’s role and duties. However, the NRSA’s media reform committee changed its main content, scraping self-regulation and including more controls. As a response, four media representatives resigned from the NRSA, including Chakkrit Permpool, former chairman of the National Press Council of Thailand.

“We [the media] oppose the bill not because we are trying to protect our rights, but because this bill is trying to restrict freedom of information access. In the end, it will affect information that the public should get,” Chakkrit said.

The thirty media organisations have  signed a statement on Facebook, asking for the public’s support and stating their position. Journalists particularly believe it is unacceptable to require a license from the government.

“This is unprecedented. Journalists don’t need practicing licences,” said Mr Thepchai Yong, President of the Confederation of Thai Journalists. “By licensing the media, it means you have direct control over them.”

However, the crucial point is not the setting of ethical regulations themselves, it is the fact that these regulations would be set and guarded by the government.

“We’re not against ethical regulations but they should be self-regulation. The bill will make way for political intervention because the permanent secretaries are appointed by politicians,” Mr. Thepchai told the Bangkok Post.

Media professionals are also worried that the bill’s approval would lead to tighter political controls and represents a dictatorial warning sign.

“It will (take) Thailand back to the dark ages, when state power was in control of the media,” said Mr Thepchai.

The Thai press is already constrained by self-censorship fuelled by the country’s laws, which can potentially jail someone for up to 15 years for criticising the monarchy.

Mr. Cakkrit echoed this sentiment also noting how this intent goes against the Constitution, which promotes media self-regulation without fear of state interference.

“This kind of thing exists only under dictatorship governments,” he said. “This is against the country’s new constitution, [which is] backed by a referendum that ensures media freedom and people’s freedom of expression.”

Thai media professionals will continue to urge the government to amend the bill and encourage the public to support their campaign across social media.